'Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.'
Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
Five minutes into the latest version of Far From the Madding Crowd came the realisation that Carey Mulligan, as Bathsheba Everdene, had changed her clothes four times already; starting out in a steampunk, leather riding jacket, and ending up in a denim dress. The latter garment rather strained credulity. If you couple this sartorial faux pas with Craig Armstrong’s sweeping, leftover-from-Poldark theme tune, and obligatory shots of the Jurassic landscape, then further doubt creeps in. Are we being offered a pastiche of the bucolic? Will it be nothing more than romantic hogwash? Happily, although the costume changes continued apace, raking up 25 different dresses by the end, the film effortlessly sets out Bathsheba’s stall as an independently minded woman, wrestling with the social moiré’s of Victorian country life. Whereas the earlier version, directed by John Schlesinger and starring Terrance Stamp, Peter Finch, Alan Bates and Julie Christie, was a masterpiece of 1960s film-making - with an ethereal Bathsheba and bravura role play on the part of all three men, forty-eight years later we are offered a much more believable film.
The plot is fairly straightforward: when Bathsheba inherits her Uncle’s farm, she sacks the ineffectual bailiff and sets to managing it herself. Pursued by three, very different men: local landowner, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen); down on his luck shepherd, Gabriel Oak, (Matthias Schoenaerts); and the caddish Sergeant Frank Troy, (Tom Sturridge), she falls for the latter of the three, and ends up marrying him – but when Troy’s former fiancé turns up dead, he tells Bathsheba that he feels more for the dead woman than his wife, and walks into the sea, presumably never to be seen alive again. Now Bathsheba is feted by Boldwood and is on the verge of giving her hand to him in marriage, when Troy reappears, having been rescued by seafarers further down the coast, only to be shot dead by Boldwood, who is subsequently incarcerated at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Having stuck with Bathsheba through thick and thin, and even having weathered her rejection of his proposal, made within the first few minutes of the film, good old Gabriel Oak now believes there is nothing for him in Wessex and sets off for America. He doesn’t get very far, for Bathsheba chases after him and practically dares him to propose. The camera pulls back, they walk off arm in arm, and all live happily ever after, or so Danish director Thomas Vinterberg would have us believe.
Make no mistake; Vinterberg has shot an impressively good-looking film, with the scenery playing a major role, but there are some intrinsic problems with the adaptation. Not least, the omission of certain important scenes that set up the later story. Thomas Hardy may have been a bastard to his attic-dwelling first wife, and he may have been a guilt-ridden curmudgeon with his second, but one thing is certain: he was a master of the plot. He knew that that the best stories are archetypes, that characters are interdependent and that if you want something to happen, you damned well better set the seeds early on, so that there is a sense of completion when it, later, comes to fruition. Sadly, Vinterberg fails to give us the scene that sets up Boldwood and Troy’s hatred of one another, and similarly, Troy and Oak. He fails to show us how these men are, in fact, co-dependent, beyond a nod to Boldwood and Oak, rather late on in the film. He fails to give us the scene that explains why Troy and his intended, Fanny Robbins, don’t make up after she goes to the wrong church. He fails to explain where the gun came from, with which Boldwood shoots Troy – one minute he’s enjoying the ball and the next, he’s running outside with a gun. None of this requires any previous knowledge of the book. All it requires is that the gaps in the plot are answered, appropriately.
Sad to say also, that, despite Carey Mulligan’s impudent portrayal of this headstrong young woman, we never learn where her lack of desire for a husband comes from. We never find out what really drives Bathsheba. What we do know is that the right man must be able to ‘tame’ her. If nothing else, though God knows how, given his personal proclivities, Hardy always managed to fashion iconic proto-feminists. Despite the lack of umph behind this film’s Bathsheba, this is pure Hardy. He married Emma Lavinia Gifford for love, but ended up driving her mad. He would write in trousers held up with string, and apparently lived in total disarray. His second wife, Florence Dugdale, had been a companion to Dracula writer Bram Stoker’s sister-in-law. Dugdale was Hardy’s ‘biggest fan’. She managed to finagle her way into his life by way of a well-written introductory letter. What an interesting household it must have been: the mad wife in the attic and the obsessed fan working alongside him downstairs. Truly, a fiction worthy of Stephen King.
Without inside knowledge, we may never know whether the missing scenes were ever part of David Nicholls script, yet all in all, the feeling that one gets is that someone somewhere decided to short-change the audience - presumably, to bring the film in under two hours. (It is 119 minutes long.)
Mostly, this film is a gentle romp through the Dorset countryside in the company of certain characters, who are wonderfully rendered by the likes of Michael Sheen and Tom Sturrdige. Sheen twitches, twinkles and generally out acts everyone in the film, but Sturridge is perfect as the womanizing, Troy. We get a real sense that, although this man is an egotistical product of the army’s macho camaraderie, yet still he is capable of love.
It is hard to say if Matthais Schoenaerts is miscast as the steadfast Gabriel Oak, or not. The character requires him to be the one ‘good’ man - the man who is honest and true, and, more than anything, an unimpassioned observer. Insofar as the character has been drawn thus, Schoenaerts gives us the perfect Oak. Yet, there is something lacking in his performance. There’s a certain emptiness, as if Schoenaerts had his mind elsewhere for most of the time.
It must be said though, that no matter its shortcomings, this is a beautifully visualised film, with some real moments of emotion from the actors: the tears in the eyes of Sturridge’s Troy, as he realises Fanny isn’t going to come to the church, the hesitant way in which Sheen’s Boldwood presses his desire, and the flirtatious charm of Mulligan’s Bathsheba, when she is bewitched by Troy.
Only time, and the box office takings, will tell whether the combined talents of this film’s cast and crew have done justice to the classic story that is Far from the Madding Crowd.
This article originally appeared in the now defunct Quadrapheme Review