Victorian values seem remote — the language is obtuse, the character development Shakespearean in complexity. However, I adore Thomas Hardy. As the master of labyrinthine plots, Hardy surprises when the viewer least expects it. And the BBC/A & E mini-series, “The Mayor of Casterbridge” (2003), capitalizes on every deviant turn with brilliant acting, cinematography, and contemporary sensibility.
Hardy’s novel is immensely captivating in cinematic form. “The Mayor of Casterbridge” is an astringent tale. The dark and mordant Michael Henchard, mayor of Casterbridge, (masterfully played by the underrated Ciaran Hinds) is deeply unlikable, a cruel, selfish drunkard who brutally humiliates his young wife and small child. But Thomas Hardy does not paint his characters in broad strokes of black and white. His good and evil are much more complicated than that. Personal failings morph into redemption and insight but devolve again into self-destruction and betrayal. The pure-of-heart–Henchard’s wife Susan and her daughter Elizabeth Jane (Jodhi May)–can forgive the unforgiveable and love unconditionally. Lucette, Henchard’s mistress (the excellent Polly Walker) has a more guarded affection. Donald Farfrae (the superb James Purefoy), a young ambitious Scotsman, arrives in Casterbridge and soon is taken into Henchard’s confidence. Wanting to achieve what Henchard has, through cooperation not competition, Farfrae introduces a revolutionary technological invention for mechanizing wheat cultivation, further enhancing Henchard’s reputation as a shrewd and successful businessman. Soon Farfrae is a more compassionate and effective manager than his employer. When Farfrae wishes to court Elizabeth-Jane Newson, who at the time is living as Henchard’s stepdaughter, the relationship with Henchard begins to unravel, and Farfrae’s own ambitions cast a shadow over his relationship with Elizabeth Jane and Lucette.
The viewer does not expect the ending that unfolds, hoping instead for redemption, forgiveness, self-knowledge. Hardy’s study of human nature and all its failings is soul-piercing and unflinching. In spite of being loved, can the tormented soul be rescued from drowning in self-loathing? The mood of “The Mayor of Casterbridge” is wounded, ambiguous, and unforgettable.