Documentary Review: Thomas Hardy: Fate, Exclusion and Tragedy – Sky Arts

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Directors: Adrian Munsey and Vance Goodwin

Editor: Vance Goodwin

Thomas Hardy: Fate, Exclusion and Tragedy is a quietly compelling documentary which goes to the heart of the man and the writer. It celebrates both Hardy’s deep love of his native landscape and his own, often bruised, heart. In his fiction, Hardy’s rural Dorset becomes part of the mythical kingdom of Wessex, the resonance of his evocation coming from his awareness that the age-old rural way of life was changing forever. Walking from Dorcester to his childhood home was, as Ralph Pite observes, like going from one period of time to another.

Love was Hardy’s central theme. He created a series of extraordinary young women in his novels, amongst them Bathsheba Everdene, Sue Bridehead and of course Tess Durbeyfield, their vividness coming from Hardy’s imaginative investment in each one. But Hardy’s own love life was less fulfilled. As his wife Emma sourly observed, Hardy ‘could understand only the women he invents – the others not at all’.

Can an hour-long documentary do justice to a life begun in 1840 and lasting until 1928? Thomas Hardy does indeed do full justice both to Hardy and the context of his life, proving the power of film to present intensely satisfying literary biography. A co-creation of Adrian Munsey and Vance Goodwin, it blends exquisite visual imagery with thoughtful commentary. Munsey’s lyrical score complements Jeremy Read’s camera work, which offers beautiful shots of the seascapes and landscapes that inspired Hardy. Short excerpts from films of the novels are intercut with brief readings from Hardy’s work. Academics Dinah Birch and Angelique Richardson offer interesting insights.

But in the main we are in the company of two Hardy experts: biographers Claire Tomalin, author of Thomas Hardy: The Time-torn Man and Ralph Pite, whose Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life was published the same year. Both speak with with authority, Tomalin pointing out, for instance, that the term ‘cliffhanger’ was devised following a dramatic chapter-end in Hardy’s serialised A Pair of Blue Eyes in which the hero is literally left dangling from a cliff. Both biographers show enormous sympathy for the troubled author, neither sensationalising the more controversial parts of Hardy’s love life. His marriage to Emma Gifford began in love and hopefulness, Emma herself an aspiring writer who embraced her role as Hardy’s helpmeet. But with his growing celebrity and his inner fascination with his heroines, the marriage turned cold. The publication of Jude the Obscure confirmed the gulf between them. Emma’s death in 1912, however, proved an extraordinary turning point, unlocking Hardy’s heart. Making a pilgrimage to the Cornwall of their courtship, he produced the poems of 1912-1913 which, as meditations on love, shame and regret, are among his finest. We hear extracts from several, including Beeny Cliff, where aerial shots of the Cornish coast illustrate the poem’s evocation of ‘the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea’.

The film increasingly turns to Ralph Pite. Without showiness, he takes us through some of the complexities of Hardy, not avoiding the dark side of his subject, in particular his cruelty towards Emma. Pite is especially insightful on the devastating effect on Hardy of World War One, emphasising his investment in the idea of the progress of civilisation, his hope that ‘victory crowns the just’. But Pite also stresses Hardy’s huge capacity for enjoyment. He quotes from Great things – ‘Sweet cyder is a great thing/ A great thing to me’ which ends celebrating ‘joy-jaunts, impassioned flings/ Love, and its ecstasy’, reminding us of Hardy’s ever-youthful heart. The documentary ends with Hardy’s burial in Westminster Abbey, and a poignant second interment – of Hardy’s heart in a Dorset churchyard.

Thomas Hardy: Fate, Exclusion and Tragedy airs on Sky Arts on Tuesday 14th September at 9pm

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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