The Return of the Native is a 1994 british BBC Television Movie based on the period novel of the same name written by Thomas Hardy.
- Directed by: Jack Gold
- Produced by: Craig Anderson, Nick Gillot, Brent Shields, Richard Welsh
- Written by: Robert W. Lenski
- Based on the novel by: Thomas Hardy
- Starring: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ray Stevenson, Clive Owen, Joan Plowright, Claire Skinner
- Music by: Carl Davis
- Cinematography: Alan Hume
- Edited by: Jim Oliver
- Country: U.K.
- Language: English
- Running time: 180 minutes
- Release date: 1994
- Distributed by: BBC
The movie takes place entirely in the environs of the ficticious Egdon Heath (in the Wessex).
The narrative begins on the evening of Guy Fawkes Night, when the population of the isolated and small village is celebrating the night. Eustacia Vye (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is celebrating the night alone (Eustacia is an exotically beautiful young woman living with her grandfather in a lonely house on Egdon Heath. She is a queenly woman who holds herself aloof from most of the heathfolk; they, in turn, consider her an oddity. Because of her look she drives many men of the village mad, because of this one or two folks of Egdon Heath even think she's a witch who has men under a spell), firing a bonfire to attract the attention of his former lover Damon Wildeve (Clive Owen).
Meanwhile the reddleman Diggory Venn (Steven Mackintosh) drives slowly across the heath, carrying a hidden passenger in the back of his van. His passenger is a young woman named Thomasin Yeobright (Claire Skinner), whom Venn is taking home. Earlier that day, Thomasin had planned to marry Damon Wildeve; however, a minor change in disposition as regards to Wildeve delayed the marriage. Thomasin, in distress, ran after the reddleman's van and asked him to take her home. Venn himself is in love with Thomasin. Now, although he knows Wildeve is unworthy of her love, he is so devoted to her that he is willing to help her secure the man of her choice.
At length, Venn reaches Bloom's End, the home of Thomasin's aunt, Mrs. Yeobright (Joan Plowright). She is a good woman, if somewhat proud and inflexible, and she wants the best for Thomasin. In former months she opposed her niece's choice of husband, and publicly forbade the banns; now, since Thomasin has compromised herself by leaving town with Wildeve and returning unmarried, the best outcome Mrs. Yeobright can envision is for the postponed marriage to be duly solemnised as soon as possible. She and Venn both begin working on Wildeve to make sure he keeps his promise to Thomasin.
Wildeve, however, is still preoccupied with Eustacia Vye. The previous year, she and Wildeve were lovers; however, even during the height of her passion for him, she knew she only loved him because there was no better object available. When Wildeve broke off the relationship to court Thomasin, Eustacia's interest in him briefly returned. The two meet on Guy Fawkes night, and Wildeve asks her to run off to America with him. She demurs.
Eustacia drops Wildeve when Mrs. Yeobright's son Clym (Ray Steveson), a successful diamond merchant, returns from Paris to his native Egdon Heath. Although he has no plans to return to Paris or the diamond trade and is, in fact, openly planning to become a schoolmaster for the rural poor, Eustacia sees him as a way to escape the hated heath and begin a grander, richer existence in a glamorous new location. With
some difficulty, she arranges to meet Clym, and the two soon fall in love. When Mrs. Yeobright objects, Clym quarrels with her.
When he sees that Eustacia is lost to him, Wildeve marries Thomasin, who gives birth to a daughter the next summer. Clym and Eustacia also marry and move to a small cottage five miles away, where they enjoy a brief period of happiness. However: Clym studies night and day to prepare for his new career as a schoolmaster while Eustacia clings to the hope that he'll give up the idea and take her abroad. Instead, he nearly blinds himself with too much reading. Eustacia, her dreams blasted, finds herself living in a hut on the heath.
At this point, Wildeve reappears. He comes calling on the Yeobrights in the middle of one hot August day and, although Clym is at home, he is fast asleep on the hearth after a gruelling session of furze-cutting. While Eustacia and Wildeve are talking, Mrs. Yeobright knocks on the door; she has decided to pay a courtesy call in the hopes of healing the estrangement between herself and her son. Eustacia looks out at her and then, in some alarm, ushers her visitor out the back door. She hears Clym calling to his mother and, thinking his mother's knocking has awakened him, remains in the garden for a few moments. When Eustacia goes back inside, she finds Clym still asleep and his mother gone. Clym, she now realises, merely cried out his mother's name in his sleep.
Mrs Yeobright, it turns out, saw Eustacia looking out the window at her; she also saw Clym's gear by the door, and so knew they were both at home. Now, thinking she has been deliberately barred from her son's home, she miserably begins the long, hot walk home and dies. Eustacia, racked with guilt, dares not tell him of her role in the tragedy; when he eventually finds out from a neighbour's child about his mother's visit—and Wildeve's—he rushes home to accuse his wife of murder and adultery. Eustacia refuses to explain her actions; instead, she tells him You are no blessing, my husband and reproaches him for his cruelty. She then moves back to her grandfather's house, where she struggles with her despair while she awaits some word from Clym.
Wildeve visits her again on Guy Fawkes night, and offers to help her get to Paris. Eustacia realises that if she lets Wildeve help her, she'll be obliged to become his mistress. She tells him she will send him a signal by night if she decides to accept. Clym's anger, meanwhile, has cooled and he sends Eustacia a letter the next day offering reconciliation. The letter arrives a few minutes too late; by the time her grandfather tries to give it to her, she has already signalled to Wildeve and set off through wind and rain to meet him. She walks along weeping, however, knowing she is about to break her marriage vows for a man who is unworthy of her.
Wildeve readies a horse and gig and waits for Eustacia in the dark. Thomasin, guessing his plans, sends Clym to intercept him; she also, by chance, encounters Diggory Venn as she dashes across the heath herself in pursuit of her husband. Eustacia does not appear; instead, she falls or throws herself into nearby Shadwater Weir. Clym and Wildeve hear the splash and hurry to investigate. Wildeve plunges recklessly after Eustacia without bothering to remove his coat, while Clym, proceeding more cautiously, nevertheless is also soon at the mercy of the raging waters. Venn arrives in time to save Clym, but is too late for the others. When Clym revives, he accuses himself of murdering his wife and mother.
In the epilogue, Venn gives up being a reddleman to become a dairy farmer. Two years later, Thomasin marries him and they settle down happily together. Clym, now a sad, solitary figure, eventually takes up preaching.
With its deeply flawed heroine and its (for the time) open acknowledgement of illicit sexual relationships, the novel The Return of the Native raised some eyebrows when it first appeared as a serial in Victorian Britain. Although he intended to structure the novel into five books, thus mirroring the classical tragic format, Hardy submitted to the tastes of the serial-reading public sufficiently to tack on a happy ending for Diggory Venn and Thomasin in a sixth book, Aftercourses. In Hardy's original conception, Venn retains his weird reddleman's character, while Thomasin lives out her days as a widow.
Hardy's choice of themes—sexual politics, thwarted desire, and the conflicting demands of nature and society—makes this a truly modern novel. Underlying these modern themes, however, is a classical sense of tragedy: Hardy scrupulously observes the three unities of time, place, and action and suggests that the struggles of those trying to escape their destinies will only hasten their destruction.
Some critics—notably D.H. Lawrence —see the novel as a study of the way communities control their misfits. In Egdon Heath, most people (particularly the women) look askance at the proud, unconventional Eustacia. Mrs. Yeobright considers her too odd and unreliable to be a suitable bride for her son, and Susan Nunsuch, who frankly believes her to be a witch, tries to protect her children from Eustacia's supposedly baleful influence by stabbing her with a stocking pin and later burning her in effigy. Clym at first laughs at such superstitions, but later embraces the majority opinion when he rejects his wife as a murderer and adulteress. In this view, Eustacia dies because she has internalised the community's values to the extent that, unable to escape Egdon without confirming her status as a fallen woman, she chooses suicide. She thereby ends her sorrows while at the same time—by drowning in the weir like any woman instead of floating, witchlike—she proves her essential innocence to the community.
- Catherine Zeta-Jones - Eustacia Vye
- Ray Stevenson - Clym Yeobright
- Clive Owen - Damon Wildeve
- Joan Plowright - Mrs. Yeobright
- Claire Skinner - Thomasin
- Steven Mackintosh - Diggory Venn
- Paul Rogers - Captain Vye
- Celia Imrie - Susan Nunsuch
- Richard Avery - Humphrey
- Peter Wight - Timothy