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FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

April 28, 2015

Film + EntertainmentReview | by Francesco Cerniglia


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By taking on Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, Danish director Thomas Vinterberg is not only challenged with living up to the literary classic, but to John Schlesinger’s cult 1967 film adaptation, which was digitally re-mastered and re-released in March this year.

Indeed, screenwriter and author David Nicholls (who turned his own best-selling novel One Day into the 2011’s film starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess), when charged with adapting the story he was hesitant at first, despite having received critical acclaim for his role in the BBC television production of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles (2008). Nicholls was said to be reassured on discovering that Vinterberg was unfamiliar with the original story and earlier film, feeling that the director could breathe new life into the tale.

For audiences familiar with Hardy’s story, the plot itself is a forgone conclusion, leaving the actors to burden the responsibility of creating tension, suspense and surprises. Carey Mulligan takes on the role of Bathsheba Everdene, a fiercely independent and wilful young woman who is pursued by three very different suitors.

Conceived in Victorian Britain, Hardy’s Bathsheba was designed to shock and challenge audiences with her rebelliousness and refusals to marry, with the character cited as an inspiration for future heroines from Gone With The Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara to The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen.

The ever-likeable Mulligan captures the light and shade of Bathsheba’s character, illuminating her mysterious and alluring qualities and playing her scenes of petulance and jealousy with an endearing humanity. The actress shares some similarities with her role; having relentlessly pursued an acting career against her family’s wishes, her now mentor Julian Fellowes (Oscar winning writer for Gosford Park and creator of Downton Abbey) initially suggested she’d be better off marrying “a wealthy banker or a lawyer” – advice she promptly ignored.

Mulligan’s on-screen chemistry with Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays the loyal shepherd Gabriel Oak, simmers pleasingly throughout the film, with much of their romance played out through eye-contact and subtle body language.

Though the enduring loyalty of Gabriel is a focus, David Nicholls’ screenplay gives each suitor equal importance in the script, unlike Schlesinger who chooses to focus on Bathsheba’s self-destructive relationship with the Soldier. By doing so, we have three fully developed male leads, each bringing out different layers of Bathsheba’s character.

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Though undoubtedly a love story, Far From the Madding Crowd is permeated with tragedy and loss, a theme that Vinterberg stays faithful to throughout the film. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruss Christensen ensures that the fate and fortune of the characters is reflected through their surroundings, with nature often reacting to the human interactions.

After Bathsheba refuses Gabriel’s proposal, his inexperienced sheep dog drives his entire flock off a cliff. The camera positions itself on Gabriel’s shoulder, as the shepherd watches each ewe fall to its death with a thud, ruining him. It’s a bleak scene that rocks the audience into giving their full attention, and reminds us that Hardy is the master of gothic melodrama.

Costume and setting bring texture and warmth to Vinterberg’s production, with wide-shots of green landscapes and the rich, earthy tones of the farm feeling a million miles away from the sludgy greys and muted tones often used to portray Victorian Britain on film.

Much thought has obviously been given to the characters’ costumes, with Bathsheba shown in jodhpurs and a leather riding jacket as she sits astride her horse, capturing her deviation from how young Victorian women were expected to behave. Tom Sturridge plays Sergeant Frank Troy, Bathsheba’s object of lust, and is almost always shown in his bright right soldier’s uniform, jarring uncomfortably against the humble agricultural tones of the farm.

Though Nicholls has included the majority of the highlights from the original plot, the film lacks some of the novel’s twisted darkness and black comedy that can be found in Schlesinger’s earlier picture.

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Bathsheba’s third suitor, the wealthy, respectable bachelor William Bolderwood, descends into madness and rage in Hardy’s tale, something that Vinterberg leaves open to interpretation with Michael Sheen’s stoic, sensitive portrayal of the quiet bachelor.

Vinterberg briefly shows Gabriel and Bathsheba discovering a cupboard filled with dresses embroidered with Bolderwood’s name, but this merely makes the timid man’s impulsive shooting of Frank seem all the more sad.

Far From the Madding Crowd’s story is one that transcends the decades, and Vinterberg’s visually impressive adaptation encourages the viewer to suspend reality for two hours as the impressive cast lead us engagingly down what could be a well-trodden narrative path.

Far From The Madding Crowd is released in UK cinemas on May 1st

Martha Ling