The Woodlanders (1997)

Film review: The Woodlanders (1997), directed by Phil Agland

The Woodlanders is based on a novel by Thomas Hardy, set in the woodlands somewhere in 1800s England. There’s Marty South (Jodhi May), who is urged by some sleazebag to cut her hair off and sell it, and her friend Giles Winterbourne (Rufus Sewell) the woodcutter, and I fully expected the story to be about them. After all, they seemed to be exchanging glances, right?

Wrong!

Ever since he was a child, there was an understanding that Giles would wed the daughter of the reasonably well-to-do Mr. Melbury (Tony Haygarth). When said daughter, Grace (Emily Woof – now there’s a surname!), comes home from having been schooled all proper like, Melbury thinks she’d be better off marrying someone … better off than a woodcutter.

And lo and behold, there’s a new doctor in town, Dr. Fitzpiers (Cal Macaninch), and he quickly appears quite smitten with Grace. Courting ensues. But is he the right man for her? Will he give her a happy ever after, when he won’t even celebrate happy events with the other woodlanders, because he doesn’t think they should associate with that kind of society? And what about Giles?

Also starring Polly Walker as rich bitch Mrs. Charmond, Walter Sparrow as Old Creedle, Sheila Burrell as Grandma Oliver (who decides not to donate her skull to science after all, for fear of losing her soul), and Michael Culkin as Percombe.

I have to admit not being too familiar with the works of Thomas Hardy (yet), but if you’re expecting passions like the Brontës and fwuffy wuv like Austen, think again. This is not a happy story, by any means. In fact, the description said something about a woman “trapped in a loveless marriage”. I was just waiting for the unfortunate union, but it seemed odd at first. The way Grace and the doctor looked at each other was not far off the way you’d expect Lizzie and Darcy to behold one another. How could that possibly lead to a loveless marriage?

Well, somehow, it does, and it’s easy to say that she was a fool for marrying the man in the first place. I can understand him being quiet, softspoken and not wanting to make a big deal of getting married. Heck, we didn’t want to make a big deal out of it either. I understand if he’d rather retire to the peace of his own bedroom than being amongst a bunch of rowdy people too, because that’s exactly what I would have wanted to do. But when we find out that he hasn’t just retired there for introverted coping reasons, but because he’s a stuck-up jerk … well, then I find it hard to sympathise. He’s on par with St. John Rivers for being a cold git.

So what of Giles? Well, he’s there in the background on occasion. Thought the plot would split so that if he can’t marry Grace, she’d go marry the doc and he’d go marry Marty. Not really. Marty is so little involved in the plot that you could easily remove her character altogether and not miss out. Don’t get why she was in it at all, to be honest. What a wasted opportunity.

Giles as a character seemed like a very nice and kind man. The only thing that kept distracting me every time he appeared on screen was Sewell’s droopy eyelid:

And let’s be honest, if something as silly and insignificant as that is found to be distracting, then it’s fair to say that the people acting in the scene weren’t too engaging, nor the script. The film is set in a beautiful piece of woodland and is very atmospheric, but holy crap what a brooding emo-fest it is! Marty loves Giles (apparently) who doesn’t love her, because Giles loves Grace. Grace, in turn, loved Giles once and now doesn’t love her doctor husband, but maybe she loves Giles after all.

And then, the supposedly well-educated Grace is too naive to trust her instincts before the marriage (only to find out later what she thought had happened actually did happen), and the whole situation at the very end is really … first of all, if someone’s cold from having been out in the rain, don’t leave them collapsed just inside the door, put them next to the burning fire to keep them warm. And also, why not just run after said person originally and beg them to stay? Or for that matter, why leave your own home instead of staying to either a) talk and tell him to fuck off, and/or b) kick that two-timing bastard out?

But I digress. The only people I felt any real sympathy with were Giles and Marty, but Marty is hardly in the film at all, and Giles doesn’t exactly get a lot of screen time either. The Woodlands is not quite as miserable and gloomy as Wuthering Heights, but not too far off. Except Hardy’s characters lack the passion and conviction of Emily Brontë’s, but on the other hand, you can actually like them, ever so slightly.

Hardy wasn’t happily married himself, apparenly, but instead of getting a divorce (which was sketchy at the best of times, which this film highlights) or write escapist fiction where everyone ended up happy at the end, he was a right misery guts. How uplifting … Not so much.

3.4 out of 5 too-narrow woodland roads.

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