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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Mayor of Casterbridge
The Mayor of Casterbridge
Acorn Media // Unrated // May 27, 2003
List Price: $59.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted June 6, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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The movie

Based on Thomas Hardy's classic novel published in 1886, the 1978 BBC production of The Mayor of Casterbridge tells the tale of the rise and fall of an ambitious man: the mayor of the title. We meet Michael Henchard (Alan Bates) as a young man, already embittered by unemployment and the obligations of his wife and baby daughter. On a drunken whim, he puts his wife and child up for auction at a country fair... only to find, years later, that his past has come back to haunt him.

The more films that I watch based on novels, the more I'm convinced that a successful adaptation has to be more than a straight conversion of page to script. The Mayor of Casterbridge is an extremely faithful representation of Thomas Hardy's novel: it presents the same characters, the same events, often even the exact dialogue from the novel, and it preserves the identical structure to the novel. And it doesn't work. Whatever the virtues of Hardy's prose, in examining the troubled and flawed Mayor of Casterbridge, they don't translate particularly well from the page to the screen. 

A clue to why it doesn't work is possibly its sheer length. The Mayor of Casterbridge is not a long book, by any means: my copy runs 327 pages, so while it's not exactly short, we're also clearly not in the gargantuan page-count league of Dickens or Tolstoy here. Yet the mini-series runs six hours, over seven fifty-minute episodes... at a painstakingly slow pace. It looks to me that the filmmakers were trying to film everything exactly as it appeared in the novel, but this attention to matching every detail paradoxically makes the pacing of the film different from that of the book. The early scenes in which Michael Henchard and his wife Sarah (Anne Stallybrass) make their way to the fair, and in which he sells her, feel much slower in pace than their counterpart written scenes, for instance; it feels as though these scenes are building up toward something, when in reality, they're just setting the stage for the real body of the story that takes place eighteen years later.

But I think that the real reason why The Mayor of Casterbridge falls flat is not in its structure or pacing, or lack of innovation; all of those could have been overcome. The problem lies in the acting, which is uniformly wooden and unconvincing. I can certainly enjoy a soap-opera plot with loads of melodrama, but in order for it to be entertaining, I have to be interested in the characters, and in turn, I have to find them believable to at least a certain degree. The lack of believability puts a stake through the heart of my interest in the characters and their travails. Watching The Mayor of Casterbridge, I was all too aware that these were actors dressed up in period costumes, reciting their lines; the characters never came to life in their own right. And so I never cared what happened. Neither, I think, will most viewers; while the series seems to have the trappings of an entertaining period piece, in truth it never comes together.

The DVD

The Mayor of Casterbridge is a three-disc set, with the three DVDs in individual keepcases inside a glossy paper slipcase.

Video

The Mayor of Casterbridge squeaks in with a barely average mark in video quality. This 1978 production has a generally faded look, with colors appearing uniformly drab; contrast tends to be too heavy, with dark scenes and shadowed areas looking excessively black. Edge enhancement is unfortunately in evidence, with distinct haloing effects visible in long-distance shots; close-ups look satisfactory, however.

The print is surprisingly clean, after the credits finish: while the title sequence is somewhat wavery and has print flaws, the program itself is almost entirely free of both noise and flaws.

The series is presented in its original television aspect ratio of 1.33:1.

Audio

The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack for The Mayor of Casterbridge comes in distinctly below average, not for any one outstanding problem, but for an overall lack of clarity and balance. The sound volume on the whole is low, requiring the volume to be increased a fair amount in order to hear the dialogue (and giving me a bit of a shock later that evening when I put in a different DVD, having forgotten to turn the volume down...). However, even with the volume fairly high, the dialogue is never particularly clear. I found myself straining to hear many parts of conversations, and missed out on quite a bit of it. Background sounds also tend to be overly loud in comparison to the actors' voices, again making it difficult to follow conversations in some scenes.

Extras

On the first disc, a biography of Thomas Hardy and cast information is provided. Menus are straightforward and easy to navigate.

Final thoughts

The Mayor of Casterbridge is an overly long, excessively faithful adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel; with its wooden acting across the board, coupled with a lack of any spark of creativity in editing or cinematography, it just falls flat. My recommendation is to skip it; if you're looking for Victorian melodrama done right, check out The Forsyte Saga instead.

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