The splendid cast of Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation Far from the Madding Crowd can’t make up for the director ironing out the nuance.By Christos Tsiolkas.
Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd misses mark
Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, first published in 1874, when Hardy was in his early 30s, was his first great literary success. Initially written in monthly instalments for a popular literary journal, the novel’s melodramatic plotting might strike the contemporary reader as distant and even absurd. But if you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so. For amid the Victorian excesses, and as in all of Hardy’s work, it contains some of the most breathtaking writing in all of the English language on the romance of place.
The novel is a hymnal to love: first, I think, to a love for the English countryside and the beauty and savagery of that landscape across the four seasons; but also a meditation on how the phases of heterosexual love are mirrored in the wonder, the beauty and the brutality of the natural world. Bathsheba Everdene is an impoverished young woman who inherits the farming property of her deceased uncle. She is first wooed by the stoic and taciturn shepherd, Gabriel Oak, whose proposal of marriage she rejects. Once her and Oak’s fortunes diverge, she will be pursued by the gentleman farmer, William Boldwood, who promises her both financial security and undying commitment. But the fiercely independent Bathsheba prides herself on being inured to romantic passion, a belief that is shattered when she meets the cavalier and attractive soldier, Sergeant Frank Troy. Love – as amity and steadfastness, as eros and surrender, as obsession and madness – is one of the great themes of the book.
As is pride. Bathsheba is a terrific character – intelligent, forthright and capable – but she has great vanity, and it is this vanity, mirrored in the behaviour of the men who love her, that leads her into disastrous choices. I think it is Hardy’s perspicacity in understanding the dangers of pride that makes the novel still read, for all its superfluous Victorian moralism, as startlingly modern. By its end, Bathsheba is humbled but it is clear that Hardy is not meaning to punish her for her vivacity and stubbornness. He is essaying the passage of his character from youthfulness to adulthood, and throughout the story Bathsheba remains vividly complex and alive.
The new adaptation in film, by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, has a terrific cast. Carey Mulligan is Bathsheba, Matthias Schoenaerts is Gabriel, Michael Sheen is Boldwood and Tom Sturridge is Frank Troy. I was greatly looking forward to the film: I wanted to see how the filmmakers would approach finding a cinematic language to match Hardy’s rapturous but restrained evocation of land and place. But within a few minutes of the film’s beginning, my heart sank. This is a staid and conservative adaptation of a literary classic, and though the cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen is often lovely, the expertly lit tableaux of farm workers and rural horizons have no potency. We are never convinced that these are real people working the land. It is evident that Vinterberg and Christensen have taken inspiration from 19th-century realist paintings, but the actors lack the vividness of the human subjects in Courbet or early van Gogh. The filmmakers truncate any scenes of work and farm labour, and in doing so they force our attention narrowly onto the story of Bathsheba and her lovers. The landscape remains mere scenery, a misguided choice in adapting any work by Hardy.
Equally ill judged is the decision to understate the vanity and pride in Bathsheba’s character. One senses what Vinterberg and writer David Nicholls want to do – to make Bathsheba’s independence explicitly feminist – but that choice has the paradoxical effect of making the narrative seem overly arch and dated. Mulligan has real presence as the young Bathsheba but as the script refuses her the self-acknowledgement of shame, she doesn’t mature as a character. It is the first time I have found myself getting bored of Mulligan as a performer. Schoenaerts, too, so physically dangerous and effective in Audiard’s Rust and Bone, is passive and uninteresting as Oak.
But the greatest waste is Sheen as Boldwood. In the novel, this correct and repressed man is awakened to love and driven to insanity by it. Hardy’s writing, and his insights into the transformational ecstasy of emotions unleashed, makes the character break free of the histrionic constraints of the plot; we as readers feel his every humiliation even as we are aware of the absurdity of his situation. But in this film, he is conceived as a bumbling, sexist oaf, and we are left emotionless by his fall. Sheen grants some gravity to him, an indication of his intelligence and range as an actor, but the writing of Boldwood is so smug I found it contemptible. The filmmakers consider themselves smarter than Hardy. They’re not, and even if they were, such bad faith destroys any vestigial interest we might have in the conclusion.
In 1967, John Schlesinger directed a remarkably faithful version of the novel. I don’t think it is a great film, but it is very good and featured four outstanding performances: Julie Christie as Bathsheba; Alan Bates, who lends a subtle erotic charge to Oak; Peter Finch, who is quietly devastating as Boldwood; and Terence Stamp as Troy. Early on in that film, Bathsheba, newly taking her place as the owner of her uncle’s farm, summons her staff and proceeds to pay them. It is a scene lifted from the novel and it is also a scene re-created in the new film. In the Schlesinger version, and as played by Christie, we understand Bathsheba’s independence and pride but we also sense how she enjoys lording it over the women and men who only recently have been her class equals. In the Vinterberg version, the scene is played only to convey Mulligan’s decency. It is a small but I think telling difference. In the Schlesinger film, Bathsheba is a character. In Vinterberg’s, she – along with the men – is reduced to caricature.
I am sounding harsh. This version of Far from the Madding Crowd has pace, it passes the time pleasantly, it is always good to look at. But one senses the missed opportunity. The cast is splendid and, as Vinterberg showed in Festen, Dear Wendy and The Hunt, is directed by someone with intelligence and vision. But in the end it is so damned unsatisfying. It is as if Vinterberg and Nicholls don’t wish to be faithful to Hardy’s language or to his astonishing clarity on the nature of love. They probably believe that they’ve created a knowing revision of a classic novel, that they’ve trumped Hardy on the sexual politics. But they’ve only remained true to the melodrama. In one way, this version of Far from the Madding Crowd is a stupefying achievement. In their narrow-mindedness and complacency, they’ve shown themselves to be more conservative than the Victorian whose work they are attempting to adapt.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 27, 2015 as "Cracking Hardy". Subscribe here.