Far From the Madding Crowd

June 27, 2015
Carey Mulligan in 'Far From the Madding Crowd' (2015)
Carey Mulligan in 'Far From the Madding Crowd' (2015)

Screen adaptations of great novels are like retrospectives of great artists. They come around every generation, recalibrated to suit the expectations of a younger audience. As one of the definitions of a classic is that it seems relevant to each successive generation, problems arise when directors (or curators) force an ‘innovative’ new reading onto the subject.

Notable disasters among recent adaptations include Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012), which turned one of the supreme novels of psychological realism into a pantomime, and Andrea Arnold’s maudlin reworking of Wuthering Heights (2011). These were the kind of films that made one wonder if Wright and Arnold had actually read the books. On the other hand, Cary Fukanaga played it straight with a creditable re-telling of Jane Eyre (2011).

The latest part of the literary canon to return to the cinema is Far From the Madding Crowd, directed by Thomas Vinterberg, a reformed Danish avant-gardist who won plaudits for his previous film, The Hunt (2012). Vinterberg has given us a conservative adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel that succeeds more fully than I would have anticipated.

Every dedicated reader of Hardy’s work knows there is a bleak savagery in his writing that needs no embellishment. Hardy was describing the loss of long-standing rural traditions during the late Industrial Revolution. His heroines strive to free themselves from the social conventions of the time but are usually destroyed in the process. It’s a world that both encourages and punishes non-conformity, where the ultimate authority lies with the capricious hand of fate. Or is it the ruthless God of the Old Testament?

Far From the Madding Crowd is one of Hardy’s books that doesn’t leave the reader feeling completely devastated – a vast shaggy dog love story that takes a long time to get back to where it was in the beginning. It has already been the subject of an excellent adaptation by John Schlesinger in 1967, featuring a stellar cast of Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.

Schlesinger’s film is probably the main reason it has taken a director almost 50 years to return to the story. Vinterberg knows he is stepping into a big pair of shoes, and there are many scenes which echo the earlier movie. Both films stick closely to Hardy’s original plot, although Vinterberg’s effort is 50 minutes shorter than Schlesinger’s epic, meaning that certain storylines are reduced to summaries.

It is the tale of Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a young woman of an independent persuasion who is determined to succeed as farmer and landowner. Her neighbour is Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), who begins on even terms, but is ruined when he loses his flock in a freak accident. Bathsheba, meanwhile, inherits a large estate and sets out to make her mark in a male-dominated community.

Before too long, Gabriel comes to work for Bathsheba but their social standing means he is condemned to be nothing more than her servant. He smoulders with unrequited passion while Bathsheba is pursued by the swashbuckling Captain Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), and a wealthy neighbour, Mr. Boldwood (Michael Sheen). It’s one long agony for Gabriel, as we watch the seemingly intelligent Bathsheba make life-changing errors of judgement. Yes, women always suffer in Hardy’s novels.

What might have been a melodrama in other hands, becomes a masterly study of flawed human beings striving to discover who they are, and what they want, within the boundaries of wealth and class. Bathsheba thinks she is a modern woman, but falls for the most basic romantic delusion. Gabriel is a stoic, accustomed to burying his feelings beneath the mask of a humble workingman. Troy is a waster, a selfish cad, but prey to surges of conscience and idealism. Mr Boldwood is as complex as any character in the book – a man obsessed – ready to face any humiliation to achieve Bathsheba’s hand.

Carey Mulligan’s performance is crucial to the credibility of this entanglement. She has to be vivacious enough to attract these diverse suitors, strong enough to exert her will over the farm labourers, and fallible enough to make a disaster of her life. I’d still put Julie Christie ahead, but Mulligan is the heart of this film. Matthias Schoenaerts stands in a similar relation to Alan Bates’s performance as the strong, silent and long-suffering Gabriel Oak. Bates made this role his own, but Schoenaerts, Flemish by birth, has just the right mixture of vulnerability and resilience.

Michael Sheen is excellent in his portrayal of Boldwood, who seems to grow more febrile from one scene to the next, being far less robust than the Peter Finch version. The only disappointment is Tom Sturridge, who plays Troy as a sneering pretty boy, whereas Terence Stamp was diabolic in the role. To be fair, Vinterberg has omitted some of Troy’s best scenes.

The landscape and the seasons must play a starring role in any Hardy adaptation, and there are many sweeping shots of a countryside that still comes across as claustrophobic. There is no freedom in Hardy’s Great Outdoors. Every character remains locked in a prison of their own devising, with the reader or viewer doing time as a cell mate. The test for me came at the very end when a sudden glimpse of happiness released the tensions that had been building for more than an hour. It felt like the saddest moment in the film.

Far From the Madding Crowd
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Written by David Nicholls, after the novel by Thomas Hardy
Starring Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple
UK/USA, rated M, 119 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 27th June, 2015.