Far from the Madding Crowd

book-cover

When I was in high school I was fortunate to have an English teacher who loved Thomas Hardy. We read “Return of the Native” (my favorite), “Far from the Madding Crowd” “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure”. Thomas Hardy portrayed the repressed passions of pastoral 19th century England. The wild and bucolic countryside is the backdrop to the conflicted and vibrant minds of men and women of Victorian England who were forced into conformity of the conventionalities of their time. That is what makes Miss Bathsheba Everdene as one of Hardy’s most impassioned figures. She marches to her own beat, she is independent but wild. The three men vying for her affection are diverse in character and nature. It is the intertwining of the these contrasting suitors that makes for a rich tapestry and a procession of events not anticipated.

“Far from the Madding Crowd” is a reminder that passion and beauty can reside in unexpected and ordinary places, even in the lowest of men. But, ultimately, nature will not fail, even in the presence of flawed beings such as Bathsheba Everdene” — from a book review, summitdaily.com

Last week I saw the newest film version of “Far from the Madding Crowd” starring Carey Mulligan. Feeling very Hardy-esque, I have started to reread the book and let me tell you, it is as magical as the first read. Hardy is all about fate and it abounds in the novel.

The book was made into a film starring Julie Christie many years ago. Carey Muligan’s performance is a match for the great Christie. I think Christie was much more beautiful than Mulligan but her independence and portrayal of Bathsheeba Everdene’s character is well done by Mulligan.

The reviews in the Guardian and The New York Times have been mixed. Here is the review from The Guardian UK:

Far From the Madding Crowd review: Carey Mulligan shines in Hardy perennial
By Peter Bradshaw

John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd must be the hardest act to follow in cinema history.

Thomas Vinterberg and his screenwriter David Nicholls take a fair stab at it in this eccentrically cast film. It is a faintly rushed, crushed version: a quart-in-a-pint-pot account of the novel without the sunlit expansiveness of the earlier, longer movie. This one skips smartly and with sometimes rather dreamlike suddenness from famous moment to famous moment (although that effect may admittedly be a result of overfamiliarity with the 1960s film).

Sergeant Troy’s disastrous failed wedding day is truncated and his most important scene has been entirely jettisoned – the secret performance at the fairground tent, playing Dick Turpin, and discovering his wife in the audience.

Where Schlesinger loved the landscape and the textures of the outdoors, Vinterberg’s emphasis is on intimacy and interior locations. There are a few conventionally pretty sunset moments, complete with rather hackneyed lens-flare. The famous swordplay scene is repositioned from an open hillside to a woodland gloaming – “the hollow of the ferns”. This is actually a rather shrewd choice, actually an improvement on Schlesinger, bringing out that scene’s mystery and eroticism.

This film’s great advantages are two very good performances – a great lead from Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba, the headstrong young woman in late 19th-century Dorset who is to inherit a handsome farm, and an excellent supporting turn from Michael Sheen as Mr Boldwood, the neighbouring middle-aged landowner who is to become fatally, tragically and self-laceratingly infatuated with Bathsheba, after she sends him an insincere Valentine card.

She has two other suitors: the conceited Sergeant Troy, played by Tom Sturridge, who looks the part without quite conveying his febrile egocentric quality – although the role is arguably underwritten. And there is also the doggedly devoted shepherd Gabriel Oak who once made a rejected marriage proposal to Bathsheba and lost his independent property after failing to protect his herd and has thus devoted his life to taking due care and protection of everything he cares about – chiefly Bathsheba, now his employer.

This role is very important: the vigilant Gabriel is virtually the spiritual centre of the story. But the part has mystifyingly been given to Matthias Schoenaerts, the hunky Belgian star whose Wessex accent has a strong tang of Antwerp. Everything about his demeanour is careful, tentative – and unrelaxed. He looks like he is concentrating on his diction.

But Carey Mulligan is excellent: her face has a pinched girlish prettiness combined with a shrewd, slightly schoolmistressy intelligence – the sort of face which can appear very young and really quite old at the same time. Her Bathsheba is well turned out with an impressive line in hats; she is a horsewoman and very keen on rough shooting, not activities that much interested Julie Christie, who was almost ethereally beautiful and fancy-free in the part.

She was at her strongest with Bathsheba’s irresponsible and impetuous side. Mulligan is very good playing opposite the sensitive Michael Sheen – the one actor who really matches her quality – but is also very good at conveying her overlapping disdain and erotic excitement at Troy’s insolent advances. The well-known sequence in which she submits to Troy’s phallic sword-twirling is good, but she has a better scene, finding herself confessing to the caddish soldier that she has never been kissed – and realises in that moment that she is utterly lost.

Michael Sheen also does very well, easily matching the memory of Peter Finch in the role. His face is etched with agony and an awful kind of abject adoration, forever trying to find ways to forgive the loved one in advance for rejection. When Sheen’s Boldwood confides to Oak that he feels “grief” you really can feel his pain.

But there is ultimately something very unbalanced in this movie: the female lead and one male support are outstanding; another supporting male is fine and the third is frankly uncomfortable and miscast. And the context has somehow gone missing: the countryside, the music, the madding crowd itself – in Gray’s poem it means the city’s madding crowd but there is an important crowd in the country too, the crowds of people and faces who should have a vivid if incidental presence. This is an interesting, heartfelt but flawed Hardy adaptation.

We have stayed at a place in England called Summer Lodge, which was once the home of Thomas Hardy. I have written about it previously.

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