Far From the Madding Crowd – Film Review

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As with the works of Charles Dickens, during the 1800’s, Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd was serialized in monthly magazine editions – in Hardy’s case, anonymously – until it was later published as a full length novel with a few revisions from the serial and the inclusion of the author’s name.  It would be his first, major success.

Since then, four film versions have hit the screens – five if you count the comedic 2010 update, Tamara Drewe – plus in the last twenty years, there has also been a stage musical, an opera and a ballet.  Arguably, the most famous of all is the John Schlesinger film adaptation with Julie Christie.  Whenever someone mentions the title, it’s usually the 1967 version to which they’re referring.  In truth, despite its notoriety, the film’s commercial success was limited to Britain; American audiences were less enthusiastic.

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Unlike the almost three hour ’67 sprawling epic, including intermission, the new 2015 Thomas Vinterberg directed adaptation is considerably shorter by almost an hour and contains less of the scenic photography of Southwest England – the Wessex of Hardy’s imagination – and concentrates more on fleshing the characters off the page with close-ups, an economy of action and dialog, and occasionally more hand-held camera work than you might like.  While you may miss the grand, cinematic sweep that lingered on a picturesque Dorset in the ’67 film, the 2015 version tells the story better.

Comparisons with 1967 are inevitable, particularly as it was always considered to be the full, definitive version to the point where the rumor of yet another big screen adaptation sounded redundant. But like its sixties counterpart, this new film turns out to be every bit as faithful to Hardy’s story and no less involving, despite the editorializing.

Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba Everdene is an intelligent, resourceful figure – not quite as seemingly reckless as Julie Christie’s Bathsheba – determined to remain as independent as possible, made somewhat easier by the fact that she inherits land and a farm and becomes an important local employer.  “I shall astonish you all,” she states to the locals.  Though, with a hint of Mulligan’s accomplished and all too human ability to appear both strong but with an underlining sense of hesitation and self-doubt, here Hardy’s famous line comes across as less a declaration of steely reserve and more as a statement to herself, as if she has purposely given herself a challenge to which she must rise.

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The plot is intact.  For different reasons, Bathsheba Everdene draws the affections of three very different men.  Local sheep farmer and land owner, Garbriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) proposes, but is turned down.  “I’m too independent for you,” Bathsheba tells him.  “You’d grow to despise me.”   Within the first ten minutes, the gentle though strong Gabriel loses everything in a heartbreaking episode and is forced to take employment on Bathsheba’s farm in order to simply survive.

The second suitor is the humorless, wealthy land owner, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) who mistakenly believes that the Valentine’s Day card sent by Bathsheba as a friendly joke was one of serious intent.  “I wish for you, very much, above all else, to be my wife,” he clumsily stammers in lieu of an actual proposal.  .

The final suitor is the untrustworthy though more obviously romantic Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge, who continues to develop with each successive role), a bounder, previously left at the altar by a doomed and pregnant young local lass, Fanny Robin (Juno Temple, whose important, secondary role is here condensed to a few short scenes) who simply went to the wrong church and was late for her own wedding.  Troy woos Bathsheba with expert swordplay as a substitute for foreplay and tells her, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a face as beautiful as yours.”

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The eventual love of Bathsheba’s life is obvious from the beginning, but it will take time and tragedy until the young woman realizes what we can all see from the outset; and that has always been the problem when this story is performed rather than read.  On the page, first-time readers and students of Thomas Hardy can indulge in the rich quality of his prose where the thoughts and actions of his characters can take you in unpredictable directions, but when seen far from the written word, outcomes and role playing are more obvious.

Bathsheba’s prank of sending an unsigned Valentine’s Day card stamped on the envelope with the words Marry Me imprinted on the seal may seem more irresponsible to American audiences than overseas.  The British tradition and fun of the Valentine’s card is to send it unsigned and often to friends, not necessarily always to lovers.  It’s intentionally a flirtatious gesture meant in good humor, thus a single man or woman can often receive several cards from different admirers, all with a tongue-in-cheek attitude not to be taken seriously.  The fun is trying to guess who sent it.  In Hardy’s novel, the gesture is irresponsible but only in hindsight considering the tragedy that follows.  No one other than a person as solemn, and perhaps as lonely, as the mature Boldwood would consider the gesture as something serious. What some scholars have considered a weak device in Hardy’s plotting is in reality something quite normal when put in the context of the culture from which the tradition originates.

Craig Armstrong’s sweeping score appropriately pinpoints the emotional highlights without drowning them, while the film’s visuals have a warm, rich texture to each scene, achieved, no doubt, by the fact that cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen shot the production on film rather than recorded it on clinically sharp digital.  The slightly smooth-around-the-edges look is exactly what the period piece requires.

 MPAA Rating:  PG-13      Length:  119 Minutes    Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

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