Karen Laird, Film Review: Far From the Madding Crowd

Karen Laird’s book The Art of Adapting Victorian Literature, 1849–1920 will be published in August 2015 by Ashgate Press. Follow her latest updates on Twitter @drkarenlaird.

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg; written by David Nicholls, based on the novel by Thomas Hardy; director of photography, Charlotte Bruus Christensen; produced by Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. 2015.

Far from the Madding Crowd was first adapted for film in 1915 by the British studio Turner Pictures. Reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic saw it as a lukewarm effort save for the lead performance by Florence Turner (known early in her phenomenal career as simply “The Vitagraph Girl”). One critic praised Turner’s performance as Bathsheba Everdene not only as “graceful, dignified and intelligent,” but remarked that this was all the more of an achievement for improving upon such an unsympathetic original template—“a part almost destitute of mental revelation and entirely without the charm of subtlety… a woman unfaithful to the natural dictates of her heart, who marries foolishly a man who acts foolishly.”[1] Another reviewer, who also commended Turner’s performance, expressed his disappointment with the film as a whole thus: “While the adaptation may be perfectly sincere, there is a feeling throughout that the most is not being made of the dramatic properties of the story. In other words, the narrative form has been adhered to too closely.”[2] From its first entrance into film history, then, Far From the Madding Crowd demanded star treatment and modernization from its readers-turned-viewers. It remains a curious case study in Victorian adaptation, in which fidelity to both characterization and plot is widely deemed undesirable.

One hundred years later, director Thomas Vinterberg’s new adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd again returns our attention to Hardy’s headstrong, independent heroine and investigates her relevance to modern women. Oscar-nominated actress Carey Mulligan (An Education, 2009) brings sensitivity and wholesomeness to the lead role, imbuing the character of Bathsheba with a new quality: likeability. Mulligan first emerged as a darling of the British literary adaptation scene through skilled but sweet performances of such minor characters as the delicate Ada Clare in Bleak House (2005) and the giggling Kitty Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (2005). These early performances shade the actress’s embodiment of Bathsheba for her fans, perhaps unfairly so; yet it is her distinctive star personae which allows Mulligan to overcome comparison to Julie Christie’s sensual and flirtatious performance in the same role in director John Schlesinger’s iconic 1967 adaptation. Mulligan makes the role of Bathsheba her own, bringing self-awareness and intelligence to match the original character’s vanity and impetuousness. Mulligan shines in scenes that make the most of her vulnerability. When she half-reluctantly sings a traditional ballad before her farmhand and current suitor, William Boldwood (played exquisitely by the pitch-perfect Michael Sheen), Mulligan’s unrefined voice and somber expression bring her character’s capacity for authentic feeling, for spiritual longing, to the surface.

This newly empathetic twist on the heroine is also partly due to David Nicholls’ carefully modernized screenplay. An award-winning contemporary novelist (One, Us) and screenwriter whose Victorian credentials include adaptations of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (2008) and Great Expectations (2012), Nicholls approached this assignment with a sense of being appointed “something of a custodian” of the classic text.[3]  Nicholls’ loyalty to Hardy is evident in his selection of episodes in the novel that we may safely consider to be obligatory scenes for adaptation: Bathsheba’s blunt rejection of the proposal humbly offered by Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts); Oak’s profound grief over his lost flock of sheep; Oak’s heroic actions to put out the fire that nearly destroys Bathsheba’s newly inherited farm. Yet throughout all of these expected scenes, Nicholls made important innovations that might go unnoticed precisely because his writing style is so natural. Hardy’s dialogue is updated and simplified to be understandable to the modern film audience. The sometimes obtrusive narrator’s allusions, commentaries, and philosophies on nature and fate guide, but never dominate, the film’s narrative arc.

Nicholls also revises Hardy’s scenes to direct our perspective back to that of Bathsheba. For example, while the novel employs the gossip of the farmhands to reveal that Bathsheba has fired her thieving bailiff, Nicholls seamlessly works this confrontation into the existing scene where Bathsheba first pays her employees. Bathsheba’s firm dismissal of the brash, bulky Bailiff Pennyways becomes the key moment when she establishes her authority before all of the laborers.

In a re-imagining of the novel’s 19th chapter, Nicholls alters Bathsheba’s position as the cool supervisor “standing by in a new riding habit,”[4] and instead plunges her willingly into the sheep-washing pool in response to a playful dare from Oak. As she wades into the water to take her place beside Oak, approving reaction shots from the farmers encourage the viewer to approve of her willingness to get her hands dirty and her dress wet. This moment is reminiscent of the now famous scene that Andrew Davies created in his 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, in which Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth) jumps into his lake while dressed in a white shirt. Both scenes works to show lead characters in a more natural, spontaneous, and thereby relatable, light.

The film’s most sensual scenes are credited to Danish director Thomas Vinterberg. The sheer amount of press attention paid to his foreign background reveals what a concern it remains for British critics that a cultural outsider is granted directorship of national literary property. (Shouldn’t Ang Lee’s stunning Sense and Sensibility (1995) have put this anxiety to rest once and for all?) Vinterberg’s signature style can best be seen in his staging of the novel’s 28th chapter, “The Hollow Amid the Ferns,” well remembered for its depiction of swordplay as symbolic foreplay.  Vinterberg amplifies the passion of Bathsheba’s first kiss from Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) with a close up shot of Troy’s hands pressed between Bathsheba’s legs. Far from being gratuitous, this sexual candidness makes clear that Troy has claimed Bathsheba as his new lover through his fencing display. This scene showcases cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s brilliant use of color and light to convey the passion of Hardy’s novel, with the vibrant scarlet of Troy’s uniform set against the verdant green of the forest, and light and shadow caressing the lovers’ faces amidst the fairytale-esque forest setting. All of these elements of visual splendor work together to convey Bathsheba’s newly awakened desire.

With excellent acting, writing, directing, and cinematography, the film is not perfect. Fanny Robin is the adaptation’s main casualty, her story trimmed so closely as to be almost incomprehensible. Fanny’s seduction story (which the novel at times submerges under the central marriage plot) exposes the raw injustice lying just beneath the bucolic surface of Hardy’s pastoral world. By minimizing this fallen woman plot running parallel to Bathsheba’s marriage plot, the filmmakers ultimately rendered the stakes of Bathsheba’s romantic choices less meaningful. On the other hand, Nicholls’ and Vinterberg’s elision of the dark nuance of gender inequality in late Victorian England may have been a shrewd decision. Hardy’s gender politics—seen most starkly in his gradual but persistent taming of his independent heroine—are not likely to be the story that modern viewers want to follow with fidelity.

[1]Lewis Reeves Harrison, “‘Far from the Madding Crowd,’ Five-Reel Adaptation from the Novel of Thomas Hardy, Featuring Florence Turner,” Moving Picture World, July 8, 1916, p. 266.

[2]“Far From the Madding Crowd,” Moving Picture World, July 1, 1916, p.107.

[3]“David Nicholls on Far From the Madding Crowd.” Interview with Jenna Milly. May 4, 2015.  <http://www.screenwritingu.com/blog/david-nicholls-far-madding-crowd>

[4]Thomas Hardy, Far From the Madding Crowd (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005), p. 134.

One comment

  1. My review. I have always been a huge Hardy fan, I love his flawed characters and the plots consisting of complex relationships, human failings and misunderstandings. I was disappointed by the new movie, it was beautifully filmed, the characterisations were good and the acting was fine BUT overall it was too restrained and sterile! There was no passion and little emotion. Far too many important story elements were missing- Frank’s dismissal of Fanny, Fanny’s actual death, Frank’s battle with the water pouring off the church, the drunken travels of Fanny’s coffin – which underline and illustrate the emotional turmoil caused by Fanny’s death. So, “pretty but passionless” is my verdict, back to the written word.

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