If you’re looking for an antidote to the nonstop action or violence so typical of the summer blockbuster as we know it, you may be in the market for the newest film version of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far From the Madding Crowd, from Danish director Thomas Vinterberg. Here, with a few significant and even shocking exceptions, the action is chiefly internal, driven by the emotions, or lack thereof, of the characters who make up the love pentangle that forms the story.
Vinterberg’s film comes exactly 100 years after the first film version of the story, a now lost 1915 British silent film that stared Florence Turner, and nearly 50 years after John Schlesinger’s poorly received 1967 film starring Julie Christie, fresh from her Oscar. Vinterberg’s is not a perfect film, but may be the best of the lot, based mainly on a fine performance by Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene.
The title of the film is confusing for some folks. The fellow who sold me the ticket ssid “Okay, two for Far from the Maddening Crowd.” I stifled my pedantic reflex and just smiled. After all, I figured, nobody really has any reason to use the term “madding” anymore., and unlike Hardy, Vinterbrg does not have the reasonable expectation that any educated person in his audience was more than familiar with the lines from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a County Churchyard” to which Hardy’s title alludes:
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 tenour of their way.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the adjective “madding” as “Becoming mad; acting madly; frenzied,” and notes that the word is now used “chiefly in far from the madding crowd [in allusion to Gray’s and Hardy’s uses… (of a place) secluded, removed from public notice; also in other phrases modelled on this.” In other words, the only time the word is used nowadays is in allusion to Hardy’s book or Gray’s poem.
But changing the word to “maddening” ignores the deliberate irony in Hardy’s title. Gray’s lines imply that a pastoral life, away from the frenzy of the city’s crowd, is by nature calm and peaceful, a “cool sequester’d” life, while Hardy’s story of love’s turmoils and the hardships of farming life belies that naïve assumption.
Like Hardy’s other major novels (Return of the Native, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the D’urbervilles), the story is set in the English West Country, in a mythical county called Wessex. Bathsheba Everdene is a beautiful and independent woman who, helping on her aunt’s farm, draws the attention of a neighboring sheep farmer, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), who somewhat surprisingly springs a marriage proposal on her. Bathsheba is taken aback, but is not in love with Gabriel and besides, does not really want a husband.
Things change when Bathsheba inherits an uncle’s farm, and despite some raised eyebrows among the local farmers, determines to manage the property herself. When Oak loses his own farm and needs a job, he applied to Bathsheba after helping put out a fire in her barn, and is employed by the new mistress as a shepherd. Their fortunes reversed, Bathsheba gives no more thought to Gabriel’s earlier proposal, but capriciously sends a valentine to a wealthy middle-aged neighboring farmer, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who, interpreting the gesture more seriously than it was intended, proposes to Bathsheba himself. She does not accept his proposal either, but does suggest she will consider it.
She doesn’t. Instead, she meets a handsome young sergeant, Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge) that same night and, infatuated by his demonstration of swordsmanship, goes off and marries him. Like that’s going to be a good idea. You’d think this independent-minded woman who has resisted two other suitors and has never felt she needed a man would be able to resist this kind of foolish choice—I mean, hasn’t Bathsheba read Jane Austen? Doesn’t she know what happened to that foolish Kitty Bennett? But I digress. Anyway, turns out (shocker!) that Troy is a gambler and wastrel, too precious for farm work, and besides, has a previous mistress, Fanny Robin (Juno Temple) who shows up pregnant.
Well I won’t spoil the end for you if you haven’t read the book. Suffice it to say that the movie reads in many ways like a Victorian soap opera—no doubt if Hardy were around today, he’d be paying the bills by writing episodes of Days of Our Lives. But the film goes beyond that, in creating a believable character who insists on being her own woman against all the social mores of her time. Mulligan manages to embody every emotion one might feel being pursued by three very different men. She does this chiefly through her eyes and body language, delivering the exquisite line “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”
Sheen is excellent as her high strung, emotionally unstable neighbor Boldwood. Schoenaerts is appropriately restrained and stoic as the long-suffering Oak. And Sturridge manages to squeeze something more out of his sleazy character than a simple cad and bounder. One change that David Nicholls’ screenplay makes from Hardy’s novel is the elimination of an early scene in which Troy rejects Fanny and casts her off because she has embarrassed him by not showing up for their wedding, though the silly girl had only made a mistake by going to the wrong church. Nicholls presents Troy as more heartbroken by the incident, and so manages to create a modicum of sympathy for Troy, though it is difficult to maintain it.
It’s also fun to play with the names in the movie, as Hardy no doubt expected us to. Bathsheba, of course, is David’s neighbor, married to the soldier Uriah, whom David covets. In Hardy’s scenario, Boldwood is in the position of David and Troy of Uriah. The name Troy, though, suggests a downfall brought about by the disregard for matrimonial bonds—as Paris abducted Helen and brought about the destruction of his home city of Troy, the sergeant’s misuse of Bathsheba, and of Fanny, seem to combine to bring about his destruction. As for Gabriel Oak, he is as strong and steadfast as the sturdy tree for which he is named, and like his namesake Gabriel serves despite all else as Bathsheba’s guardian angel.
This is also a beautiful film, in particular its costumes, especially those worn by Bathsheba once she inherits her own estate. And award-winning cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen manages to milk all the beauty of rural West Country England in scene after scene of beautiful natural scenes that call up like nothing else in the movie the spirit of Gray’s original lines—the cool sequestered background against which the tempest of the lover’s madding life plays out.
Certainly there are some flaws in the film, in particular in the sometimes eviscerated script that leaves out a good deal of exposition, a fact that makes Oak’s and Boldwood’s proposals seem to come out of nowhere. And without giving away the ending, it is a little disappointing to see the very unconventional Bathsheba squeezed ultimately into a conventional role, though that is Hardy’s doing, not the filmmaker’s. Still, it is no accident that Bathsheba Everdene is the spiritual mother of Katniss Everdeen, the strong willed and self-sufficient heroine of the popular Hunger Games series—who is also the object of more than one suitor’s affections. Katniss has somewhat more agency in her society than Bathsheba is allowed in hers, but it must be stated that without the Bathshebas blazing the trail, there would have been no possibility of a Katniss.
Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one. If you want to get away from the madding crowds this summer, skip by The Avengers and Fury Road, and duck into this movie. You’ll be glad you did.