Thomas Hardy will best be remembered for depressing, sob-story tales (The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Woodlanders). Whenever I see his name, tales involving unpleasant choices and moral complexities is what I think of but he is considered a “classic author.” When learning of Under the Greenwood Tree it didn’t seem possible that he could write something even remotely close to Austen-esque but several years ago, I decided that this period piece was worth a look.
On a cold Christmas Eve night, the educated daughter of a penniless village man arrives in the small village of Mellstock. Fancy (Keeley Hawes) was raised a country girl but was sent away by her father Geoffrey (Bleak Houses’ Tom Georgeson) to be properly schooled in all social graces. Now all grown up, Fancy is only the second person to reside in the village who has had a proper upbringing. The first is Parson Maybold (Ben Miles) who was instrumental in bringing Fancy back to the village as the children’s teacher. Brought up a simple country boy of the town carrier, Dick Dewy (James Murray) has lived in Mellstock all his life and while out caroling for Christmas, he sets his eyes on Miss Day and is enchanted from that moment on.
Time passes and the two of them become friends but that all changes after a kiss. Fancy's only objective then is to avoid Dick, knowing that her father wants her to marry well. She is soon courted by the wealthiest man in town, Farmer Shiner (Steve Pemberton) a bumbling, simple man who is a kind sort underneath his faults. Fancy settles into a routine of caring for her ill father and teaching while becoming part of the town’s new controversy after Parson Maybold enlists her to play their new harmonium. Amidst Fancy’s struggles to become part of the small village lies her desire for true love and her conflict in seeing her father’s dreams realized.
What follows is a delightful little romantic drama that leaves us with a feeling of enchantment and a goofy smile long after the credit’s roll. I’ve not seen all of Thomas Hardys’ adaptations, but know most of the stories as I do research on period films before making a decision to purchase them. Mayor of Casterbridge is a thoroughly enjoyable story, but is so sad by the end and The Woodlanders is depressing throughout, so when reading about Under the Greenwood Tree, it was very surprising to make not of everyone else’s glowing praises and confirming remarks that this was such a sweet-natured film. Needless to say it wasn’t a mistake to add this period romance to my collection.
BBC over the years has produced and distributed many wonderful films that were written by such authors as Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell and Jane Austen. This little charmer is no less splendid in its costumes, music and acting. The costumes are gorgeous; the style isn’t always as flattering as it could be, but I can’t deny that the gowns were lovely nonetheless – Fancy looks quite exquisite during a scene in which she attends an elegant party. The scenery was lovely as well, although nothing stood out quite as prominent as the Greenwood Tree – the only real significance to this is the showing of time passing. If you’ve seen Far from the Maddning Crowd, which is also by this author, the two stories are very similar only ‘Maddening Crowd’ sets a more dramatic tone. Having seen the 1960’s version starring Julie Christie, it struck me how similar the two are, and I thought it strange that he would write two stories so similar, but they were indeed two separate tales and not merely separate adaptations with different titles.
Acting was first-rate. Keeley Hawes is really quite lovely and wonderfully brilliant in every role I’ve seen her in. She has a way of bringing so much life and energy to the screen, even in more dramatic scenes she really shines. Tom Georgeson was fantastic and it was nice to see his character standing up for things quite unlike his character in Bleak House. I’d never seen lead James Murray in anything before this, but hope to see him in more costume dramas; his portrayal of the smitten beau was great. His instant attraction to Fancy is well played between both of them and really comes off on screen as such, making their 'love story' appear genuine. All of the supporting cast is notable. Parson Maybolds’ character does bring to mind the raged schoolteacher Bradley Headstone from Our Mutual Friend, but you can stand this character much better than the previous. In my last viewing another thing more noticed was the music, it was very beautiful. From the Christmas songs to the overall score, it was pleasant to listen to; always fitting and setting the tone for the scene. One of the cutest scenes comes when Fancy learns of something Dick did for her family and she happens upon him while he’s collecting clams – the scene plays out as being simply charming. Under the Greenwood Tree is just a sweet period piece with a fairy-tale feel that has made its way into my heart as an all-time favorite. Its hour and a half runtime is shorter than most of its genre, but is a good choice if you are in the mood for a taste from this genre without watching a four or six hour long mini series.
(Content: the only minor things worth mentioning include a few kisses. The Dewey’s make a “cider” and once the men get drunk before going to church. Fancy and Dick flirt on a few occasions, but nothing ever comes of it nor is anything implied. Everything equates to a PG-rating.)