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Mayor of Casterbridge (1978) – DVD Review

Mayor of Casterbridge DVD


Written by Dennis Potter, based on the novel by Thomas Hardy
Directed by David Giles
Starring Alan Bates, Janet Maw, Jack Galloway, Anne Stallybrass, Anna Massey


  • Thomas Hardy biography

Released by Acorn Media
Region: 1
Rating: NR, suitable for most audiences 13+
Anamorphic: N/A; appears in its original 1.33:1 format.

Based on the novel by Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge tells the tale of Michael Henchard (Bates), who in a fit of sullen despair and drunkenness sells his wife Susan (Stallybrass) and baby daughter to a kindly sailor at a country fair. When he sobers up, the gravity of what he has done comes home to him, and he vows never to drink again, a promise he keeps for nineteen years. Now, however, the sailor is presumed lost at sea, and Susan has come looking for her erstwhile husband. Henchard, meanwhile, has become the much-respected Mayor of the town of Casterbridge, though of course the townsfolk know nothing of his shameful past. He also plans to marry again, but Susan has something to say about this.

[ad#longpost]The film, like the book before it, raises interesting questions about the nature of justice: can we ever really put our shames behind us? At what point can we truly say we’ve turned a new leaf and started over? How long should we pay for our crimes, and can you really get away with dodging your responsibilities? It is clear that Henchard attempted to make amends for his actions, but it is less clear if he ever truly takes responsibility. And what of Susan’s part in the tragedy?

The director and cinematographer do a wonderful job using the terrain of Wessex to help tell the story. The opening scenes where young Henchard and Susan are struggling to feed themselves have gloomy, dark skies and dark colors, whereas later, when Henchard’s life is looking up and he seems to have become a better man, the skies are brighter and things are more colorful. Alan Bates as the benighted Henchard is splendid; you feel for his situation, but you know his hell is one of his own making, and he can never quite learn from his own mistakes and the only “conscience” he ever shows is plain guilt.

The only feature on this release is a Thomas Hardy bio, which, while interesting, is less than one would hope. A novel of this import deserves a commentary track by a distinguished professor of Victorian novels and/or a biography of Hardy. Maps of the real Dorchester, upon which the fictional Casterbridge was based, a PDF file of the novel itself, a Hardy bibliography, and even a look at the laws of the day regarding the selling of one’s wife and kin would have been excellent inclusions, as well. They really should consult with me on these things, you know?

Whether you think Henchard gets what he deserves or gets a raw deal, The Mayor of Casterbridge will envelope you in its saga of country squires and wronged women. Fans of costume and historical drama will enjoy this one, as will fans of psychological drama and human nature. Decide for yourself if Henchard’s fall is the result of hubris, deep selfishness, Cruel Fate, or of mere social ineptitude. If you enjoy this film version, please read the novel, as it is unimaginably better.

1 comment

  • Good review, I think I liked the series better than you did though. I thought it was about as good an adaptation of the book as you can get on film. One mistake you made, it was Dorset that Hardy was writing about, not Dorchester. Also, you don’t pay any tribute in your review to the magnetic Alan Bates, who makes us pity a character who often is not that likable. Still, thanks for a thoughtful and well written review.