Film: Chopping out Hardy's emotional dead wood

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The Woodlanders is Thomas Hardy's first novel to be filmed in the heart of Wessex since John Schlesinger's Far From The Madding Crowd in 1967. Michael Winterbottom transplanted Jude to the bitter North. In ITV's dismal version of The Return of the Native, the part of Egdon Heath was taken by Exmoor. And due to circumstances not so foreign to those described in the novel itself, Roman Polanski was obliged to relocate the lush pastures of Tess to Normandy.

The Woodlanders brings Hardy back to his own doorstep, partly for the simple reason that it was possible. The counties which make up Wessex are nowadays too built-up to pass for remote countryside, but this is a tale of arboreal ardour: it takes place almost entirely under a vast deciduous canopy that shelters and supports an isolated community of villagers. The forest is the novel's overarching personality, under whose rustling roof the characters get on with mucking up their lives.

The film was shot in the New Forest, which also happens to be the doorstep of the first-time director Phil Agland. Agland was born in 1950 in Budmouth, and educated at a grammar school in Wintoncester (or Weymouth and Winchester, if you can't recall Hardy's quaint renamings). He now lives near Salisbury (Marygreen) in a converted farm where he has also installed a couple of editing suites. Before we reduce this to a collaboration between local film-maker and local novelist, it's worth scrolling down Agland's CV. He has an eccentric pedigree behind him. Though no one could dispute that he knows how to hold a camera - he has two Baftas for best photography to his name - they were for his work on two epic factual series (for which he also won best documentary Baftas).

Until The Woodlanders Agland had not shot a single reel of film in this country. He made his name first with Baka: People of the Rainforest, a series about a tribe of pygmies in Cameroon. He then shifted his focus to provincial China and came back with the breathtaking Beyond The Clouds. It's no wonder Channel 4 coughed up some of the money for The Woodlanders (more came in the form of the first Lottery grant to a feature film): the station owed him.

The plot has undergone a fair amount of surgery. Eighty pages have been hacked away from the end of the novel, and much of the melodramatic dead wood has been sawn off. What remains is structured as a kind of ladder of unrequited love in which each character falls for someone on the next rung up. Peasant girl Marti South keeps stumm about her love for Giles Winterbourne, whose childhood sweetheart Grace Melbury has been educated out of his range. Grace in turn falls for the contemptuous outsider Dr Fitzpiers, who has an affair with the local landowner Mrs Charmond.

Agland is determined to gloss over the perceived gap between this current project and previous ones. He first read The Woodlanders while he was living for two years among the Baka tribe of pygmies in Cameroon. "One shared the sense of estrangement from the outside world," he says. "I really felt that Hardy had an insight into that as well and The Woodlanders was really talking about the same issues. Hardy really felt the impossibility for Grace to re-engage with her heritage. Part of Fitzpiers's dilemma is that he doesn't know who Grace is. He has this schizophrenic view of her. She's a woodland lass and on the other hand a beautiful educated woman."

The Woodlanders is essentially a novel about how education screws you up. Bettered by her schooling, Grace complains that she has been "pulled up by the roots", thus forcing her in the Hardeian heroine's familiar cleft stick of not knowing which suitor to plump for. Agland's own schooling took him as far as a geography degree at Hull University. It was because he decided not to complete a course that he fell into filmmaking by accident.

"I travelled for about two or three years in the tropics just to get to know other cultures, became very concerned in tropical deforestation and wanted to do something about it. In a very naive way I chose Cameroon and just bought a camera - I felt that the essential prerequisite of doing something like that was publicity." He made a film called Korup: An African Rainforest, much of which required him to lug a camera up trees as high as Nelson's Column in the middle of the night, about the evolutionary battle between plants and animals in the area of forest which he and a friend turned into a conservation park. "I made the film not because I wanted to be a film-maker but because I wanted to make a park."

Channel 4 showed the film, to excellent reviews, in its first week, and he became co-producer of the award-winning Fragile Earth strand. In 1985 he went back to Cameroon to make Baka: People of the Rainforest, and moved on to China for Beyond The Clouds. He reckons he has spent eight of the past 20 years abroad. After that lot, why do a Hardy movie? Why trade in a crew of two technicians for 100, pliant documentary subjects for highly strung actors?

"The idea of shooting on 35mm and being projected in a world that's going increasingly to tape is a wonderful thing for someone who loves the aesthetic of film. Also I wanted to get the environmental message to a theatre audience. I would like people to come away thinking about our own English woodland heritage in a world that's increasingly urban." In other words this is, in the least pejorative sense, a heritage movie.

Agland is now editing a vast personality-based, fly-on-the-wall documentary series, to be screened next year, called Love And Death in Shanghai.

"The idea of the series is to take China to the edge of the century through the eyes of a huge city. It's big, ugly, modern China. I still think that in the West we have a very two-dimensional view of China. It's an incredibly vibrant mix of people there.

"I hope what the films will do will give a real sense that although it's a very different culture in many ways we are all exactly the same. The sense of community is one thing that really anchored Chinese culture and has stabilised. As a product of that, stability is threatened as well." Which brings us back to The Woodlanders.

Agland filmed The Woodlanders in two 12-week chunks while also shooting Love And Death In Shanghai. He was thus commuting between film and television, rural and urban settings, drama and documentary. Like a heroine from Hardy caught between two beaux, he is at a fork in the road signposted fact or fiction.

"I've gone from natural history to people, from a small village in the forest to a big town to one of the biggest cities in the world. It's all there, and when we come to the end of that I just don't know where to go. I desperately want to make a feature film in China." He also aspires to film Mikhail Sholokov's And Quiet Flows The Don, which he thinks is "easily as good as Dr Zhivago". Guess where he first read it. The rain forest.