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Miramax Pictures presents
The Woodlanders (1997)

Marty South: Oh, Giles, if only you could tell your heart to be free.
Giles Winterbourne: You can't tell the heart. The heart hopes. Most of all where it's hopeless.

- Jodhi May, Rufus Sewell

Review By: Jeff Wilson   
Published: June 29, 2005

Stars: Rufus Sewell, Emily Woof
Other Stars: Polly Walker, Cal MacAninch, Tony Haygarth, Jodhi May
Director: Phil Agland

MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and mild language
Run Time: 01:37:42
Release Date: June 28, 2005
UPC: 786936145151
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B C+B+B+ F

DVD Review

Thomas Hardy is not the most box office friendly of authors to adapt these days. His tales of England's West Country usually feature rather downbeat endings, and the bygone morality of those days fails to register with our more permissive age. Still, adaptations of his work get made, with sometimes wonderful results—Michael Winterbottom's 1996 film of Jude the Obscure, titled simply Jude, is as uncompromising as it gets and packs a dramatic wallop. That is not the case with Phil Agland's The Woodlanders, though, which strips away too much of the original story to carry through its emotional core.

This 1997 film was a victim of Miramax's purchase and pack away policy, which left it unseen until now, when the company is dumping numerous titles on the market in the wake of the Weinstein brothers' departure. It isn't hard to see why the film remained unreleased, though; it features a dramatically displeasing storyline (read: unhappy ending) and doesn't really have any name actors beyond Rufus Sewell (which is stretching it) and Polly Walker in a glorified cameo. All that matters at this point is the end product: is it any good?

The short answer is not really, if you have read the book, and somewhat, if you haven't. I kept filling in the film's story with what was missing from the book, to the film's detriment. And to be sure, the script left out a good deal, as the story is pared to the bone. It is a fairly faithful adaptation in most ways. The movie does end at a point in the story before the book ends, which was an interesting way to end the film, given what happens in the book. I would argue it's a necessary change, though, given the nature of the adaptation.

The Woodlanders is at heart the story of Grace Melbury (Emily Woof), the daughter of a timber-merchant in the town of Little Hintock. Her father (Tony Haygarth), in the hopes of elevating his daughter in society, has had her schooled to become a proper lady. When the story begins, Grace is due back from school at long last, and Melbury sends Giles Winterbourne (Sewell) to pick her up. Giles and Grace have long had an understanding that they would marry if both were amenable when the time came. Both appear to be so amenable, but Melbury, seeing his daughter as deserving better, discourages Grace from marrying Giles.

Enter the village's new doctor, Edred Fitzpiers (Cal MacAninch). He is immediately taken with Grace, and asks permission to court her. Melbury, thrilled that someone from a family with a distinguished name would be interested in his daughter, happily consents, and the doctor and Grace are soon married. Giles, meanwhile, has lost his home after his lease is terminated. That lease is held by Mrs. Charmond (Walker), a widow bored with small town life. While out, she takes a tumble from her carriage, and Fitzpiers tends to her. Their meeting sparks something between the two, and Grace is soon forgotten in the wake of a new romance. Giles, however, remains faithful to his love, and there remains a small chance that they can be together.

There are several scenes in the film version of the story that don't make a lot of sense without the added development in the book; the opening scene is one of them. In it, Marty South (Jodhi May) is offered money if she will sell her hair to Mrs. Charmond, who wants it to augment her own. That plot point later plays a vital part of the story that is dropped in the film, and without that later development, the cutting of the hair is relatively pointless in the film, though Marty's thwarted love for Giles still provides some reason for showing it. Further, the book's background for the relationship of Fitzpiers to Mrs. Charmond and one of the village girls is pared down so far as to be nonexistent, and Mrs. Charmond's character is much more present in the book. I realize this is the usual "the book was better than the movie" talk, but there really is a lot of important material left out of the film. If you enjoy the film at all, do read the novel, as it gets into much deeper detail about all the characters, and everything makes much more sense as a result.

The film, story complaints aside, is a handsome one, and the locations matched what I imagined reading the book, more or less. The cast were all well chosen, with the exception of Polly Walker. She is a bit too old for Mrs. Charmond, who is only supposed to be in her late twenties. The only complaint one might make with the acting is that the actors rarely get into any heightened emotional state; everything is a bit too placid for its own good. The widescreen ratio suits the encompassing nature of the woodlands where the film is set nicely, though the direction is otherwise unobtrusive.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the anamorphic transfer is colorful and pleasant, though there is occasional evidence of edge enhancement. I didn't find it a deterrent to the overall viewing experience, though. Detail level is decent, and the blacks, of which there are plenty, look fairly solid.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The film is almost exclusively dialogue-driven, and the Dolby 2.0 track is clean and clear. George Fenton's excellent score is served equally well.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Dear Frankie, Bride and Prejudice
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Zip, zilch, nada. If you want to call them extras, there are skippable, nonanamorphic trailers before the menu for Dear Frankie and Bride and Prejudice, and a self-congratulatory Miramax 25th anniversary ad. The only options on the disc are choice of subtitle and chaptering. Amusingly, Miramax lays on the hype (such as it is) on the cover, in an effort to get John and Jane Q. Public to give this a look. "A Timeless Tale of Passion and Desire." "Based on the Best-Selling Classic." (They don't mention it was a best-seller in 1887.) "ACCLAIMED AWARD WINNER!" and "Honored with awards at numerous international film festivals," which turns out to be one film festival award, one nomination at a festival, and a newspaper award. And, finally, for those that care about such things, there is an insert, with chapter titles.

Extras Grade: F


Final Comments

If you enjoy the costume drama genre and need a fix, then I'd suggest giving The Woodlanders a look; it's by no means a perfect film, but it does its job as well as it can. Readers of Hardy will likely be disappointed by an adaptation that fails to do justice to its marvelous source material. The DVD is as bare as it gets, but it has a solid presentation of the film.


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