Thursday, May 14, 2015

Review: "Far from the Madding Crowd"

I will admit to an embarrassing aversion to a lot of 19th century Western literature in general, and the British kind in particular. I've always found much of this writing long-winded and self-indulgent, as if the authors took pen in hand more for the idolatry of their own prose than crafting a compelling story and vivid characters for their readers.

Even short books like Bram Stoker's "Dracula" seem needlessly inflated with a sense of self-importance. Why write 300 words, the thinking seems to be, when 3,000 will do?

Movie adaptations of this oeuvre tend to do well though, since the process of turning a book into a film is largely a process in elimination -- whittling the narrative down to its purest essence. I've not read Thomas Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd," but I have an inkling I like the movie version more than I would the novel.

Carey Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdene, a spirited young woman who inherits a large farm in the English countryside. A sort of proto-feminist, Bathsheba sets about running the enterprise and a small army of workers on her own, resolving to bring successful crops of wheat and barley seed to market and strike deals with her male counterparts. She will rise before anyone else in the morning and be the last in bed.

"It is my intention to astonish you all," Bathsheba informs her farmhands.

But love, as it is wont to do, invades the Everdene farm. Bathsheba finds herself the object of not one, or two, but three urgent male suitors. Left to her own devices she would prefer not to marry at all. But whether out of a sense of propriety, necessity or just pure whim, she begins to negotiate the minefield of romantic intentions, many of them misplaced.

The first is Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a sturdy and stoic shepherd who pitched his woo when Bathsheba was still a penniless helper at her aunt's farm. He proposes marriage after they've shared only one or two conversations, and apparently this was not unusual for the time. Back when people saw marriage as a mutually agreeable accommodation; you got hitched and then worried about falling in love.

Bathsheba rejects Mr. Oak, somewhat haughtily, and later he loses his entire flock and becomes a wandering laborer. He eventually finds his way to Bathsheba's farm, and becomes her employee. Their relationship is confusing and strained -- at one point she seeks his advice about a personal matter, then dismisses him after he responds with counsel not to her liking.

(In this, I see that the thought patterns of modern women are not dramatically different from those of their fictional 19th century counterparts.)

In a girlish fit, Bathsheba sends a valentine to William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a rich and stodgy middle-aged bachelor who reputedly had his heart broken long ago. He interprets this as a romantic overture and, you guessed it, immediately responds with a proposal of marriage. He promises her whatever she wants, including her independence in continuing to run her own farm. She recognizes the promise of such an offer, but again demurs -- after stringing Boldwood along for a few months.

Finally there is Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a hot-headed sergeant who gives up the military life to seduce Bathsheba. He had nearly wed Fanny (Juno Temple), one of Bathsheba's former workers, but sees the  monetary benefits of aiming higher up the social scale. Predictably, once Troy and Bathsheba are wed he quickly becomes bored with the life of a country gentleman, drinks and carouses, running up large gambling debts.

Directed by Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg based upon a screenplay by David Nicholls, "Far from the Madding Crowd" is a gorgeous-looking film, lush with color and beautiful imagery.

The story is all restrained emotions and unspoken declarations in that very British way. This is the sort of the movie in which characters take an hour and a half to say, "I love you," and even then they don't just blurt it right out.

It's sort of a pastoral version of "The Remains of the Day." Carey Mulligan is an endearing screen presence as always, and her three would-be husbands all display some aspects of the Byron-esque romantic ideal man, though they all are found wanting in other areas.

I enjoyed the movie for what it is, which is to say if you've "Remains" or "Room with a View" or "Little Women" or any of a few dozen other films, you pretty much know you are getting the same thing.


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