I caught the first half hour of this when it originally aired on CBS in 1994, but as I was a teenager I did not know of Thomas Hardy's work, nor did I recognize Catherine Zeta-Jones or Clive Owen as they were both unknown in North America at the time. I have since taken a liking to watching period films and reading the classic novels upon which they are based. I have read the novel of The Return of the Native several times; it is one of my favorite Hardy novels, but I couldn't help but notice some similarities to Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, similarities that are evident in the film as well. Wind-swept moors, a headstrong, misguided heroine who marries a kind-hearted but dull gentleman for opportunity and possibility of society acceptance yet she maintains her strong connection to the brooding, roguish man who is tormented by the spell she casts. Spell, of course, used as a figure of speech, although raven-haired Eustacia Vye (Zeta-Jones) is suspected to be a witch and shunned by the locals of Egdon Heath, since her effect on men seems to have some kind of bewitching quality in their eyes. Even though Damon Wildeve (Owen) is pledged to marry the fair Thomasin Yeobright (Claire Skinner), he cannot seem to shake his feelings for Eustacia, who keeps drawing him to her with her bonfires and her indecision to leave England with him. As much as she wants to escape from Egdon, she feels that somehow Wildeve is beneath her, so when Thomasin's cousin Clym (Ray Stevenson) returns from Paris, she immediately sets her sights on him and leaves Damon in the dust. He, in turn, marries Thomasin almost out of spite, hoping to hurt Eustacia, but she only pushes forward with her plan to win Clym's heart, wed him and hoping that he will take her away from the heath she despises so much. However, with Hardy, things rarely the work out the way his characters hope - Clym wants to stay in Wessex, to open a school and live simply, which only brings his wife to despair and boredom. She begins to wonder if she made a mistake, and re-encountering her former lover only cements her confusion. She is somewhat torn, and this ultimately brings on her downfall as well as Damon's. Other notable portrayals are Steven MackIntosh as reddleman Diggory Venn, who unselfishly loves Thomasin and will do anything to see her happy; his character is both honorable and down-to-earth yet possesses a kind of unworldly knowledge about what he sees around him. And the ever reliable Joan Plowright as Clym's mother turns in yet another wonderful performance. Of course, there are liberties taken (cause of death of Mrs. Yeobright is altered, omission of Damon and Thomasin's child, inclusion of more of the novel's text would have been good at the climax), but overall, for the running time, Hallmark did a commendable job with this presentation. The characters of Eustacia, Wildeve, Diggory and even Thomasin have always held more interest for me than Clym, who in my opinion was never a very compelling character to begin with, sort of like Edgar Linton. Stevenson, also a virtual unknown at the time, does well with his pretty much thankless role - I never really understood what Eustacia saw in him other than her plans for escape and maybe his idealism, but Damon was a far better match for her. With Clym, she sees what she wants to see, whereas with Damon the reality is something that she doesn't know if she wants to see (there has to be some symbolism of Clym losing his sight). Of course, Eustacia and Damon are the most tragic, and are doomed, not only because they are both outsiders and their relationship to each other (which would be considered scandalous in Victorian England), but their desire to escape is only achieved in death. One of the complaints I have about this production is how there was none of the novel's dialogue when Eustacia takes her fatal plunge and Wildeve's ill-fated attempt to rescue her were included.
Filmed in Exmoor National Park (rather than in Dorset), the location does make the setting seem more rugged and wild, the music is very emotional and romantic, the cinematography very lush and pretty, Zeta-Jones is costumed more colorfully than the other women, no doubt to make to make her more distinctive (but her beauty does that alone). Very good supporting cast also. And I have to say, I cannot picture anyone else but Catherine and Clive in the roles, even when I read the novel. It's worth seeing for them and the landscape alone!