Here’s the paradox of books to movies. The more you know about the book, the more critical you’ll be when watching the movie, and the less likely you’ll enjoy it. Here’s a case in point. If you want to enjoy this current version of Far From the Madding Crowd without hindrance, do not read or reread Hardy’s novel before you see it. For me, alas, I’ve read it twice in the last few months. So, who can I blame if I find the movie disappointing?
Now, I know exactly that I need to judge a movie on its own merits and not according to how ‘faithful’ it is to the source. I’ve written a post on this view. This current adaptation misses the mark not because it’s not ‘faithful’ but because it has been mishandled. The script, the direction, and for that matter, the casting. Now hear me out. I had high expectations for it. Here we have an Oscar nominated director, Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt, 2012), offering a new version from John Schlesinger’s 1967 production which touted a high calibre cast of Julie Christie, Peter Finch, Alan Bates and Terrance Stamp. After almost fifty years, should one not hold a certain high level of excitement in welcoming a new version with a modern cast?
To start off, I must give credit where it’s due and that’s to the director of photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Hunt) for bringing the beautiful Dorset country to the big screen so we can visualize Hardy’s ‘Wessex’. The camera captures the lush green fields and gentle rolling hills at dawn and dusk, the farming life, the harvesting under the golden sun. Reminds me of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. The scenic and authentic location of the filming is an alluring backdrop to the story.
Now to the screenplay. David Nicholls is no stranger to simplified versions of classics. His last Hardy light Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a TV mini-series (2008), had four episodes to tell the story. But here as a full-length feature, this new Madding Crowd script could make CliffsNotes writers feel they are doing some heavy lifting. Actually, the movie is not far from the source material, almost all of the scenes and many of the dialogues come from the book, with some alterations, but this is understandable. One would think alterations should be for the purpose of dramatization; so it’s just mind boggling that certain scenes that are essentially dramatic in the novel have been left out, ones that could have enhanced the tension substantially. Two readily come to mind: First is the circus scene where Sergeant Troy was nearly recognized by Bathsheba, and the second is right at the climax of the story, Boldwood’s Christmas party, not omitted but with its tension substantially lessened.
Danish director Vinterberg’s previous work The Hunt – a 2014 Oscar Best Foreign Language Film nominee – was a riveting and psychological piece of work. He could have operated in that mode here. With the scenes sweeping by, and leaving out some pivotal cinematic moments, he has missed chances to engage the audience. The altered state of the climatic scene is regretful. Take that crucial act when Boldwood was driven by mad passion (I’m trying to avoid spoiler here in case you haven’t read the book) during that fateful Christmas party in his home. Instead of displaying the conflict and tension in full public view, Vinterberg has taken the action out into the dark of night. Without all the guests as witnesses, the gravity of the conflict and Boldwood’s ultimate action is effectually diminished; not only that, the handling is incredulously haphazard and swift. While Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd exudes a lighter mood compared to the cosmically burdened Tess of the U’Derbervilles – and I chuckled at many of his lines while reading – I don’t expect movie viewers would take this film as a comedy. But this was exactly the audience’s reaction in the theatre. When you hear loud laughter at the climax of the movie, you know the director has missed the mark.
The story is about the characters, more so here when you have one headstrong female being wooed by three vastly different men. What’s intriguing is the emotional ‘trilemma’ of our heroine. The effervescent Bathsheba Everdene, the independent, new mistress of the Weatherbury farm is, alas, misdirected. Carey Mulligan can be a convincing Bathsheba, but the strength of character is diminished by the breezy script and a director who fails to draw out her potential. From the “I shall astonish you all” first meeting with her farmhands to the “Please don’t desert me, Gabriel!” plea to Oak so he would come back to rescue her ailing flock, there are pages of Hardy descriptions. Surely, time is of the essence in a 120-minute movie, but at least show visually the gravity of her situation before she so readily rides horseback and race to Gabriel. As a transition, let the camera frame a wide angle shot of the field littered with sheep lying helpless, ready to expire, for she’s about to lose them all. But just showing a sheep in distress doesn’t warrant the quick change in character, from leading to pleading. It looks like Vinterberg has crafted a feeble and even exploitive Bathsheba who gets her way by her outward charm. In several scenes she could have been more intense; we see no Hardy’s expression of ‘nether lip quivered.’
Among the three suiters, the strongest performance comes from Michael Sheen as William Boldwood. His nuanced facial expressions speak louder than words. Whether intentioned by Vinterberg or not, Sheen has turned the truly, madly, deeply love-sick Boldwood into a comic character, more so than Hardy’s portrayal. Or, were the laughters not intended? No matter, Sheen’s performance compensates for the lack of in the other two men.
Gabriel Oak the resourceful shepherd is the strong and silent type. Not only is he a man of few words, the Belgium actor Matthias Schoenaerts has turned him into a man of few expressions as well. Schoenaerts is fine in action thrillers like The Drop (2014) but just not in a romantic lead, as in Rust and Bone (2012), and now Madding Crowd, for he fails to command the image of either a lead or a romantic. In several scenes, we as audience are left hanging, ungratified, for his lack of verbal response to Bathsheba’s sincere words.
If Schoenaerts is expressionless, here is an equal rival, Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Troy. The George Wickham parallel who dazzles with his brass and scarlet, Sergeant Troy is a subdued character here who lures with his sword. Is it the director or the screenwriter, the few lines given him are mostly sparse and one-liners like “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a face as beautiful as yours.” Sure, that’s from Hardy, but in richer descriptive context. Or, another short line to explain (away) pages of happenings absent on screen.
I’m writing this not in disrespect but disappointment in that a good chance to do justice to Hardy’s illuminating work is missed. Yet, all is not lost; there still remains a synopsis of a Hardy story and Hardy country in full cinematic view. Further, we are confirmed, again, that Carey Mulligan can sing, in a particular folksy, soulful way. So far, I’ve heard her sing in three movies, and each time it enriches the storytelling. When Awards Season comes this fall, I look forward to a stronger performance from her in Suffragette. Simply by virtue of the release date, it is an award hopeful. Some are already predicting Oscar nods for her role in that production.
As for Madding Crowd, let’s just note that it’s a May-released movie.
~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
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