Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Film Review: "Far from the Madding Crowd"

I expected far too much from Thomas Vinterberg's adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd. For one thing, it's rare for an adaptation of a favorite novel to garner approval from the fanatic reader, and Thomas Hardy is one of my absolute favorite authors, while Far from the Madding Crowd is one of my favorite novels. For another, the story, like so many of Hardy's plots, is largely psychological, only to be punctuated by moments of high emotional intensity, trauma, and violence. Such a plot is hardly cinematic and requires a willingness to rely on the visual to portray the inner states of the characters; Vinterberg seems to have lacked the necessary trust in his actors and confidence in himself.

For those who have not read the novel (what are you waiting for?), the story concerns Bathsheba Everdene, a strong-willed and independent woman who determines to run her farm, inherited from her uncle, on her own, without a husband. She attracts suitors and three of them are serious contenders for her hand, her heart, and, it must be said, her property: Gabriel Oak, a soft-spoken though stubbornly principled sheep farmer who becomes superintendent of her farm, William Boldwood, a neurotic, narcissistic, and interestingly tortured man who owns the farm adjacent to hers, and Francis Troy, a dashing, seductive soldier with bad habits, a murky past, and a way with a compliment. Four such obdurate characters in one novel are a recipe for tragedy, and Hardy delivers.

One wouldn't know that from Vinterberg's film. Carey Mulligan's Bathsheba appears permanently pained in an embarrassingly flat and one-note performance, though that could be at least partly due to the fact that she sustained a concussion during filming. Michael Sheen, as Boldwood, looks incredibly like the description given by Hardy, but seems perpetually lost, while his character's eventual explosion is both set up too obviously and utterly anticlimactic when it occurs. Tom Sturridge, as Troy, also looks his part, and he injects a wee bit of life in the staid atmosphere, but his performance has no emotional depth to match his splashy red uniform. Matthias Schoenaerts, as Oak, is the only one of the cast to give a somewhat nuanced performance, but he is at his best when silently conveying what the character is feeling and thinking and falters as soon as Oak opens his mouth.

That being said, it isn't fair to blame the listlessness and ennui of the film purely on the actors. The screenplay by David Nicholls is one scene after another of expository dialogue, much of which strikes an unnatural chord ("Lose the barn, lose it all" says one farmhand as they try to put out a fire). Despite the rigidity of class differences being so important to an understanding of the novel, the film casts off all such considerations, except as occasional verbal decoration. The richly idiosyncratic and dialect-speaking secondary characters are squeezed almost entirely away (though granted, this is regularly the way in Hardy adaptations, even in Under the Greenwood Tree, which, in novel form, spends hardly any time on the lovers), and even the central characters are ciphers. Some lip service is paid to a decidedly desultory sort of pandering feminism, i.e. Bathsheba repeatedly states she doesn't want to marry and become a mere piece of property, and, oh goodness me, she rides astride rather sidesaddle, but never has Hardy's headstrong, tough, plucky heroine with a flashing temper and a rather cruel sense of humor been more beholden to the men around her. Everything these characters say has to be taken at face value, for none of it is believable. They seem to act as directed by some god of tragic circumstance, while the characters as written by Hardy are goaded, impelled, bound, and scourged by love of the darkest variety.

And there lies the central problem. The novel hinges on love, love as pain, love as loyalty, love as pride, love as vanity, love as ambition. People may fail, neglect those they love most, murder, betray, and commit any number of cruelties in the film, but never for one second is one convinced that there is actual emotion behind the actions. This lack of emotional depth is certainly due in part to the pacing. Vinterberg leaps from shot to shot as though he meant to race through the whole movie in a minute. Only in the very last scene does he allow the camera to linger long enough to capture onscreen a mote of the feeling Hardy conveys in a word. Vinterberg gets just under two hours of film from a novel well exceeding 400 pages; in contrast, John Schlesinger's 1967 adaptation starring Julie Christie left out more of the book and still clocked in at two hours and forty minutes. The shots in and of themselves are often very pretty - the cinematographer was Charlotte Bruus Christensen - but one hardly sees them before they're whisked away to be replace by another. The score by Craig Armstrong is a shallow imitation of the slow, strings-heavy, listlessly romantic type that has been in vogue since Dario Marianelli scored Pride and Prejudice in 2005. In emotional range, it extends from melancholic sadness to melancholic happiness.

What a great pity! Such a brilliant novel with a proto-feminist, deeply complex and difficult, land-owning heroine that examines marriage, gender, class, love, sex, and independence could make for an equally brilliant film. This adaptation is decidedly not it. But even leaving aside questions of adaptation, Far from the Madding Crowd is listless and dreary, cosmetically pretty (as long as you don't blink) but without a thing under its pastel veneer.

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