Each year, there are a small handful of cinematic masterpieces created. Some years, only one or two, other years, maybe a few more. This year, the world was presented with the motion picture adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic 1874 novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, and it is about as near to perfection as a film can be.
When adapting a work of literature beloved by so many people for so many years, it can be difficult to know where to begin.
No one does subtlety better than the British. The complexities, intricacies, and delicacies of life in Victorian England was understood perhaps no greater than by the genius novelist, Mr. Thomas Hardy. At least, it was he who described such living in so brilliant a manner that his stories live on, age after age, for readers to delve fully into that rich world of subtlety, manners, and endlessly fascinating socio-economic structures.
Hardy favored the pastoral life to that of fast, big city living. His novels, oft set in such agrarian, georgic locales, manage to cover a whole plethora of interpersonal dealings, while maintaining a kind of peace about them, which is comforting to the reader. That is far from saying that they inhabit a space void of action or surprises, quite the contrary, however the characters exist in a space where rules are rules, life is largely set, and breaking outside of certain strictures is not only verboten, but can have dire consequences on one’s prospects, fortune, and chance at a decent life.
Far from the Madding Crowd is perhaps most exemplary of everything wonderful about a Hardy novel. Set in Dorset County, England, it embodies the Arcadian life and exquisitely represents such sylvan, pastoral living. Its protagonist is one of the most unique, superb women in literature. And it weaves a love story quite unlike others, tying in etiquette, tradition (and the breaking thereof), and everything else desirable out of a good love story as well. It’s an ornate, well-crafted novel, and if you have yet to give it a read, do yourself a favor and pick it up (preferably before viewing the grand motion picture version, but in either order, both will be enjoyed).
Having previously been adapted into several film, stage, opera, and even musical productions, this 2015 rendition is by no means the first, but it may well be the finest presentation of Hardy’s masterwork.
Onto the film and story…
Miss Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is the stout-hearted heroine at the center of what could be described as a love quadrangle, who finds herself at the outset of the story in an unexpected proposal of marriage by her neighbor and friend, the kind farmer, Mr. Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts).
True to his solid given name, Gabriel Oak is a quiet, humble, decent man, who has a herd of sheep, a plot of land, and a heart set on Miss Everdene. Bathsheba is independent, self-proclaimed as “wild,” and upon hearing his request, she immediately declines it, feeling that he would never be able to “tame” her. And moreover, that she wishes not to be married, not to be ever just “some man’s wife.” She is unique in her time, bearing this attitude, and Hardy has drawn her as a fiercely free, independent spirit, with whom viewers/readers cannot help but fall in love.
Crushed, Gabriel accepts this denial and returns to his farm. In the night, a fate worse than it may at first seem befalls him. The younger of the two Georges (his dogs, whom he has named Old and Young George), jumps the fence into where his sheep are resting at night. Provoking the herd, Young George causes them to knock through their entrapment and head out to pasture. Unfortunately, Gabriel’s land borders on a high cliff. In the absence of his master and not fully trained, Young George foolishly leads all the sheep to the edge. Watching what happens next truly makes the viewers’ hearts sink.
Old George senses something is awry, wakes his master, who rouses from sleep and goes to see what had happened, but it was too late. The sheep are traumatically shown falling to their death from the steep escarpment, thus dramatically changing the livelihood and future of their owner. His life in ruins by the loss of his source of income, he puts a bullet through Young George’s head, sells his farm for what little he could make under the circumstances, and heads out to unknown territory to find new work.
Meanwhile, Bathsheba has received word via post that her wealthy, land-owning uncle has died and left her his grandiose farmhouse, land, and all else of his belongings. Suddenly realizing that she is now the mistress of a wealthy estate, she finds herself in a path not trodden by many women of her time period.
She’s independently wealthy and fully capable, happy, and willing to take up the responsibility of her newly found wealth all on her own. Not only that, but Gabriel, who, in light of his loss ended up finding work on where else but Bathsheba’s farm, and has now endured a turn of fate wherein his social status has diminished to far below that which a woman of Miss Everdene’s now high estate would fancy.
Bathsheba is without question a masterful creation of a character. She is “no man’s property” as she clearly states, and she holds her own in every situation into which she is cast. When she and her friend and maidservant Liddy (Jessica Barden) head to market to sell their crop’s yield, they are treated with disdain by all the others there, who are almost exclusively land-owning men. But despite her slight physique, she is strong in nearly every sense of the word, and she wields her way into and through the male-dominated society, being the resilient, cogent, and intelligent person she is.
One man she encounters at market, church, and elsewhere about town, who at the start seemed to show little interest in her, then in time grew to endlessly pursue her was a Mr. William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). Wealthy, eligible, and on the same social status plane as Bathsheba, Boldwood comes to visit her, dine with her and her many workers she employs, and is bachelor number two who seeks to take her hand in marriage and tame her tenacious heart. Boldwood is a good man, who’s heart is essentially in the right place, but in love with him in the truest sense, Bathsheba does not at first see herself falling, despite her not entirely allowing him to think one way or the other, due to certain teases such as sending him Valentine in the mail.
Another pursuer is a soldier, Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), who comes along after serving in the military and having thought he was spurned by a lover, Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple), to work the fields of Miss Everdene’s lands. Brash, brazen, and the bad boy type, Troy embodies a certain curiosity that intrigues Bathsheba, in stirring ways she may not have entirely expected or essentially desired. He does not come across as the immediately “right” choice for her future, but Hardy weaves the tale in such a way that makes it understandable how all three of these men hold certain attributes towards which one could be drawn. In making his leading lady not one to derive her life’s meaning and sense of self-worth from her relationship to a man, Hardy makes the relational dynamics all the more interesting. Nothing is merely a given, the way it so often has been for women throughout history, especially at that time in English society.
Bathsheba is not perfect, again adding layers to her character, she does not always make the correct calls, neither interpersonally nor in life. She is truly what E. M. Forster would describe as a round character. And watching her story unfold, and the wheels of these characters’ lives turn is an incomparably enjoyable viewing experience.
As though such thoroughly well thought out storytelling of Hardy’s source material were not enough of a joy, the tightly-written and carefully-worded adapted screenplay by David Nicholls; Kave Quinn’s lush production design; the brilliant art direction by Tim Blake, Julia Castle, and Hannah Moseley; Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s truly inspired cinematography of gorgeous rural England; the directorial choices of Thomas Vinterberg; and the tremendously well-chosen cast of completely committed and wildly talented actors all make for such a harmonious melody of moviemaking magic, that it’s all nearly too much (in the best way possible!) to drink in.
There is also an absolutely heartbreakingly beautiful soundtrack by Craig Armstrong to accompany the best film thus far of 2015. A score has not been so wonderfully re-playable since the score for 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, by Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Dario Marianelli.
Choosing a Danish director to tell such a quintessentially British story may have not been anyone’s first thought of how to best go about telling it. But Vinterberg rises to the challenge and succeeds with aplomb and grace, bringing an illustrious edge to the whole vision, making it all feel fresh, vibrant, and new. He has a keen eye for what visually works well onscreen, and the choice of using predominantly natural lighting in scenes really gave a naturalistic feel to the overall picture.
There were so many scenes that were basked in practically palpable sunlight or conversely, truly dark nighttime, giving a real sense of what it feels like when it’s that dark outside in nature, away from any light sources save the reflection of the moon and stars. It forced one’s eyes to adjust, and was a bold, proper choice of his, not being afraid to linger in the darkness of a scene.
Vinterberg also utilizes every inch of the screen, making a film that perhaps may be thought unnecessary to be seen on the big screen, however it actually benefits greatly from that experience, particularly in the placement of people in the anatomy of a scene. The final shots of the film most especially are an impeccable example of his keen eye, giving a glimpse of what the whole story is really about, all in a couple frames of wordless, visual truth and beauty. It’s amazing.
Rare are such gems of cinematic storytelling magic. Far from the Madding Crowd is indubitably not one to be missed.
5 out of 5 stars.