Wayfarers across the centuries, English novelist Thomas Hardy and Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg meet in the fictional country within a country of Wessex, which the novelist described in his preface to Far From The Madding Crowd as "a merely realistic dream country." It is in the partly-real, partly-imagined Wessex and Hardy's 1874 novel that the writer and filmmaker quite amicably meet and combine their talents. Of course, such bonhomie does not necessarily guarantee excitement, the kind of friction that often produces artistic brilliance.
This latest (and fourth) film version of Far From The Madding Crowd demonstrates a shared feeling for landscape and a somewhat reluctant romanticism on the part of Hardy and Vinterberg. Brought newly to the screen, Hardy's beloved novel is above all a handsome piece of work in which the visual appeal of its actors, its wardrobe and landscape are happily allowed to trump the novelist's typical fatalism and tendency to put his lovers through the mill before any ultimate reunion. Among its most felicitous points of convergence, Far From The Madding Crowd gives us Hardy's heroine Bathsheba Everdene as personified by the radiant Carey Mulligan.
Mulligan is the young, independent Bathsheba, leading us into the story of Far From The Madding Crowd in voiceover, wondering at a first name for which she has no explanation (her parents are long-deceased). Bathsheba arrives to live and work on the Wessex farm of her aunt, where she meets a local shepherd, affixed with a name that would seem to anticipate by some decades a strapping character from the pages of a romance novel. This Gabriel Oak (Mattias Schoenaerts), and a sturdy (ahem) lad he is. Such is the appeal of Bathsheba, or such the dearth of nubile women in this Wessex, that marriage proposals are proffered about as readily as "Good day." Gabriel is the first man to blurt a quick proposal. After but a couple of fleeting encounters, the shepherd appears at the home of Bathsheba's aunt to bestow upon her a lamb. The darling creature is just a pretense, Gabriel explains, when the aunt is out of earshot. He's really come to propose a marriage. Bathsheba is a bit flummoxed, flattered and then gently dismissive in turn. She has little interest in marriage and thinks the laconic shepherd is hardly the man to tame her into the such a conventional life.
|The dapper shepherd: Mattias Schoenaerts as|
Gabriel Oak in Far From The Madding Crowd.
Bathsheba's initial rejection of Gabriel is seemingly cemented by his own reversal - a mad sheep dog drives his herd off one of those chalky white English cliffs a fateful night (one of the film's few and effective instances of special effects, resulting in a kind of ebb tide of sheep death on the beach below), ruining his plans to buy outright the land on which he had been plying his trade. Gabriel is rendered homeless, even if he would seem to maintain a wardrobe of simple elegance and a jaunty satchel in which carry his worldly belongings. The shepherd's wandering is brief. When he seeks employment at a farm at which he's told there might be work, he arrives in time to find the buildings in flames. With seemingly no one in charge, Gabriel saves the day and the barn. When the farm's grateful owner appears on the scene and lowers the hood of her cloak, Gabriel is very surprised to see Bathsheba. She had been inheriting the formerly impressive farm while he had been losing his land.
Gabriel assumes the position of shepherd and go-to man at Bathsheba's estate. He's must also play witness to the awkward courtship between his mistress and William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). Bathsheba sends the widower a valentine in jest, which eventually unleashes a torrent of repressed emotion from the unhappy man, even if the flood rarely takes the form of any words a woman of passion might find enticing. As did Gabriel Oak, Boldwood makes an abrupt proposal, speaking less of affection than acreage, dresses to be bought, a piano to be acquired for his would-be bride. But she already has a piano, Bathsheba reminds Boldwood. Not to mention her own estate. The saturnine fellow is left with a thread of hope, but really hasn't a chance. Gabriel scolds Bathsheba for toying with poor Boldwood, which results in a not-terribly-convincing pique of anger and abrupt firing of the shepherd.
So, this strong but shifting association between Bathsheba and Gabriel is severed once and for all, right? Well...no. Not long after the shepherd quits the estate, Bathsheba's sheep are discovered agog in field of rich grass on which they have unwisely feasted, resulting in the the likely-fatal bloat. Guess who's the only man with the expertise to save the wretched animals? Bathsheba must swallow her pride and recall Gabriel herself. And a-galloping they go back to the afflicted sheep, where Gabriel is able to expertly puncture all of the distended bellies and save the day. One could use such a man after a visit to one's favorite Indian restaurant....
Bathsheba and Gabriel are thus thrown together. And torn apart. And thrust back together again. So goes Hardy's plotting from novel to novel, man and woman jerked hither and yon to serve the almost arbitrary turns of story. But the novelist has also given us this heroine, a woman in late-19th century England who has little interest in marriage, even before a considerable inheritance. Not exactly what one would expect of a male novelist of the period. Even less, his later heroine Tess, a "fallen woman" whom he refused to see as such.
Troy and Bathsheba meet one evening when she is doing the rounds of her estate. Entranced by her beauty, Troy sticks around, working briefly among Bathsheba's employees until she agrees to a forest assignation, very much over the warning Gabriel. But this is not your average pastoral tryst, if there is such a thing. Troy arrives fulled bedecked in his soldier's scarlet jacket and sable trousers and proceeds to thrill Bathsheba with a demonstration of his swordsmanship. And an impressive swordsman he is. Ahem. Of a more conventional coming together of young flesh there is only a kiss. But this is Bathsheba's first. More than anywhere in Far From The Madding Crowd, Carey Mulligan carries and frankly saves this scene with her expressive but complex reaction: hands held out, though not predictably quivering, those brown eyes an enigmatic show of surprise, fear, bewilderment.
The silly sword show is but one instance of David Nicholls' script, quite faithful to Hardy's novel even when it needn't be. The overcome Bathsheba foolishly weds Troy, even if she quickly realizes that she has married a restless boy with a man's vices, possessing a depth of feeling only for that lost love, Fanny Robin (Juno Temple), reduced to wandering penury and flung back into the story by Hurricane Hardy like debris from another county.
Alas, poor Boldwood. Reduced to near madness as Bathsheba is taken in by Troy. Allowed to hope anew when the rakish Sargeant is apparently drowned. Pushed completely round the bend when the cad reappears to reclaim his wife. The wayward passions present in Far From The Madding Crowd and other of Hardy's novels are really only evident here in the desperate intensity of William Boldwood, which Michael Sheen's expresses most eloquently in moments when he speaks only with a telling gleam of dark, lost eyes. Otherwise, the edges of determining passions - Bathsheba's initial disdain for Gabriel; the shepherd's pride - are rounded off. This is not entirely a bad thing.
While some of the frisson of conflict and ultimate coupling is lost with the extreme emotions of Hardy's novel, the lower simmer is a welcome departure from the more extreme convolutions of plot and more in keeping with the pastoral tone of much of the work. Despite the typical crash and rending of man and woman, Far From The Madding Crowd is one of Hardy's most satisfying works. That prior to the darkening tone of his last novels, Tess and Jude The Obscure, in which his tragic vision is pounded like a spike into the Wessex soil (not to mention the unfortunate reader's cranium).
Director Thomas Vinterberg has an eye for the beauty of his setting, even if the farm work is presented in almost idealized form. We do see indications that dirt might adhere briefly to the body, that sweat might darken the occasional strand of hair of one engaged in such toil, but this is not a film to meditate upon how physically breaking working the land can be.
This Far From The Madding Crowd is ultimately about the wry, wise and otherwise expressive visage and voice of Carey Mulligan. There has long been an intelligence beyond her years quality in the work Ms. Mulligan. As her face has taken on more definition, as the slightest indication of lines appear around the eyes, that intelligence is matched by a beautiful face which seems to express a life experience to justify the knowing smile. Vinterberg and his crew certainly know what they have in Mulligan (and the cast's handsome men), clothing and photographing them to fullest advantage. Never more is this the case than an early shot of Mulligan in a black blouse, against a rich brown background of tilled soil. Stunning.
So, a couple of hours in the company of this lovely, intelligent young artist and a satisfying if predictable resolution. One might long for a bit more, that further realm where greatness can be found. But then if one happened to see Far From The Madding Crowd, as did I, after a numbing series of trailers for supposed art films on the way, one might not be so greedy. The most stupefying of these coming attractions (or warnings), titled with leaden literalness, Learning to Drive, features Patricia Clarkson as a New York Woman - yes - learning to drive, the road and life lessons being provided by a taxi driver played by Ben Kingsley (of course), the white woman getting her modest groove back thanks to the wise Sikh. Really. Really. After the relative eternity of these trailers, one felt not unlike a Hardy character, jerked around by the fates, chastened by reminders how very, very bad things could well be, grateful for the lovely thing at hand.