Friday, May 15, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd: Frequently maddening

Far from the Madding Crowd (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, and needlessly, for mild sensuality and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.15.15

This has been obvious for (literally) centuries, but it bears repeating: Thomas Hardy was no Jane Austen.

Although Bathsheba (Cary Mulligan) knows that Gabriel (Matthias Schoenaerts) loves her,
she's too independent and stubborn to acknowledge that she quite likely feels the same.
Sadly, such innocence in matters of the heart is about to make her vulnerable to another
potential suitor: one who's far less honorable.
Although Far from the Madding Crowd — his fourth novel, and the one that brought him fame — paints a lovingly descriptive portrait of the rolling, rugged countryside of 19th century Southwest England, with the inflexible class divide that we’ve come to expect from the period, Hardy fails utterly in his novel’s most important task: the creation of a sympathetic protagonist.

Director Thomas Vinterberg and star Carey Mulligan do their very best, in this newest film adaptation of Hardy’s novel. In appearance, spirit and resourcefulness, her handling of Bathsheba Everdene positively sparkles: an effervescent young woman who’d be the center of attention at any social gathering, warding off the advances of countless suitors.

Mulligan is adorable. Her radiant smile is granted additional intensity by a mischievous glint in her eyes, and her nose crinkles in a particularly endearing way when that smile blossoms into a delightful grin that hints at the promise of ... something.

But that’s the problem: Bathsheba is all coy suggestion, with no delivery. Her behavior is to be excused, in Hardy’s view, by her innocence; the parentless upbringing that fueled her pride and grit — and most particularly a determination to prove that a woman can go it alone, despite the era’s disparagement of single women — also left her clueless in kinder social graces such as diplomacy, tact and sensitivity.

By surface appearance, we can’t help admiring Bathsheba. By her actions ... well, that’s another matter indeed.

Part of the problem, of course, is the widening gap that separates our 21st century sensibilities from this novel’s 1874 publication date, with all that entailed. During the past 50 years in particular — since this book’s best-known 1967 adaptation by director John Schlesinger, with Julie Christie handling the title role — we’ve grown less tolerant of a 19th century male author’s clumsy attempt at a female protagonist, and far more impressed by Austen’s progressive 18th century creation of (to us) much more interesting heroines.

I spent all of this film debating whether Bathsheba, constantly making poor decisions, deserves the happy ending we all know is coming ... and I’m not persuaded that she does. Her blunt behavior toward two of the men in her life is breathtakingly callous, at times downright cruel. One wishes to reach into the screen, and smack some sense — and kindness — into her.

That’s a serious issue, but by no means this film’s only flaw. Hardy’s novel is dense, to say the least; the Penguin Classics edition runs just shy of 500 pages. Scripter David Nicholls does that weighty tome no favors with his jarringly abrupt and often clumsy adaptation, with some details condensed to the point of absurdity. Although Nicholls includes all of the novel’s key plot points, that’s pretty much all he includes.

It’s somewhat amusing to note that this film follows the novel’s Wikipedia synopsis almost to the letter, as if Nicholls had based his shooting script on that 11-paragraph summary. We get no back-story on key characters; others wander in and out of the narrative seemingly at random; crucial plot points are sidestepped or ignored entirely.

We’ll never know how long Vinterberg’s original cut ran, but this 120-minute film feels like the “best bits” from a far longer production ... which, in turn, merely reinforces the fact that such a narrative would have done far better as a six-hour BBC miniseries.

Which probably would have drawn a more appreciative audience. This film can’t possibly appeal to mainstream viewers — what period costume melodrama does, these days? — and even Hardy’s most devoted fans will be annoyed by the Reader’s Digest Condensed Book liberties repeatedly taken here.

The Danish-born Vinterberg has an eclectic résumé, to say the least, although he does seem drawn to mannered, interpersonal conflict, particularly among intimates; that’s certainly the right sensibility here. And Nicholls should have been perfect, having recently adapted Dickens (2012’s big-screen Great Expectations) and taken an earlier shot at Hardy, with a 2008 miniseries handling of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

But there you go: The latter ran a far more satisfying 240 minutes.


While helping an aunt with her farm, Bathsheba meets Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a young neighbor who, through dint of savings and a loan, has leased the neighboring property and stocked it with sheep. Utterly smitten, he impulsively asks her hand in marriage; quite taken aback, she refuses.

Not much later, Gabriel’s fortunes shift due to a ghastly tragedy; Bathsheba, apparently discomfited by his proposal, flees to a distant village.

(What happens to her aunt, struggling so hard to manage a farm single-handedly? What happens to the adorable lamb that Gabriel has presented Bathsheba, as a sweet gift?)

Circumstance unites them again, after Bathsheba inherits an uncle’s estate and farm, and Gabriel happens upon it in time to help douse a fire. (Classic novels, never forget, are driven by such coincidence.) Meanwhile, though, Gabriel had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-them encounter with Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), a dashing soldier and obvious rogue; and Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple), the young woman who loves him, and who is equally loved in return.

Somehow, on the basis of this nanosecond glimpse, and with no words exchanged, Gabriel knows that Troy is No Good. (So do we, but that’s beside the point.)

Time passes. Bathsheba settles into her role as landowner and manager of a sizable estate staff, winning the latter’s approval by demonstrating her willingness to work just as hard as they do, often at their sides. Her closest confidant becomes Liddy (Jessica Barden), a servant (maid? housekeeper?) who comes to admire and respect her new mistress.

Their property abuts an even larger estate owned by the reclusive, middle-aged William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who may be even more socially inept than Bathsheba. Thanks to a truly thoughtless joke, Boldwood comes to believe that she fancies him; although she has the courtesy to apologize for her behavior, she nonetheless insists that he has no chance with her. For the moment, anyway...

Enter a Fanny-less Troy — thanks to a truly eye-rolling contrivance: more understandable in Hardy’s novel, but absurdly handled here — who abruptly becomes Bathsheba’s third admirer.

Raise your hands, class: If Bathsheba is to succumb to somebody, who’s the worst possible choice?

Right first time. And, apparently, all because of some sword tricks. Even Mulligan can’t persuade us that Bathsheba is that shallow; this is the dumbest incident in Nicholls’ script.

And the one that hurts Boldwood the most, of course.

Sheen almost steals the film; his portrayal of Boldwood is heartbreaking. We grieve for this poor man, and the awkwardness with which he attempts to explain his feelings; one of Sheen’s best moments comes fairly early, outside Bathsheba’s home, as Boldwood, wracked by agonized indecision, reluctantly accepts Gabriel’s suggestion to withdraw.

Gabriel, who misses nothing, treats Boldwood with the quiet kindness that Bathsheba never realizes is required.

Schoenaerts is equally memorable as the stoic but obviously smitten Gabriel, forever respecting Bathesheba’s wishes, and nonetheless remaining nearby, in order to protect her ... mostly from herself. The impetuously self-centered young woman frequently abuses this loyalty ... and yet, at the same time, comes to depend upon it.

Schoenaerts nails the calm, deferential nature required of his role; I kept thinking of Cary Elwes’ farm boy, Westley, in The Princess Bride, and the dutiful “As you wish” he spoke in response to every request made by his beloved Buttercup. Schoenaerts grants that archetype a more serious tone here, but the devotion is identical.

We hate Troy on sight, as we’re supposed to; Sturridge is the pluperfect cad.

As for Fanny ... not a clue. Temple can’t be blamed; she simply doesn’t get any screen time, and therefore no opportunity to flesh out her character to any degree.

Events build to an eye-rolling climax in the third act, contrivance taking the overly melodramatic turns we’d expect from an afternoon TV soap opera. Sometimes the results are unintentionally funny, as when Bathsheba objects to Troy’s demand for more money, on the grounds that he’ll bankrupt their farm. Seriously? It feels, at this point, like they’ve been married for two or three days; how much could he have gambled away in so short a time?

Obviously, then, they’ve been together far longer ... but that’s not the way it plays here.

Plot issues aside, things certainly look fabulous. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen imbues every frame with the luxurious, pastoral splendor necessary to bring what Hardy called his “realistic dream country” to vivid life. Production designer Kave Quinn does equally marvelous things with the estates, farm settings and brief glimpses of nearby villages; costume designer Janet Patterson garbs everybody to perfection.

Much as individual moments can be enjoyed, however — Nicholls does grant Mulligan and Schoenaerts some droll, flirty exchanges of dialogue — Vinterberg’s film is far less than the sum of various exquisite parts. Bathsheba remains too deeply flawed, and the narrative much too choppy.

Famed film critic Roger Ebert called Schlesinger’s earlier adaptation “sweet and superficial,” and I’m inclined to agree ... but it was, nonetheless, more romantically engaging than this disappointing drama.

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