It’s time to inject a little culture into this blog with a review of the most recent film adaptation of “Far from the Madding Crowd”
Do you often find yourself wishing for an idyllic life bathed in the golden sunshine of a rural utopia? Are you regularly gripped with a need to watch a class system get in the way of romance? If so then this may well be the movie for you. From the opening scene we follow the main character, Bathsheba Everdene, through the trials and tribulations of finding her place in a world that doesn’t really want her to be what she is. To make matters more complicated she is pursued by a bevy of suitors, each of them pulling her interests in a different direction. What follows is a story that desperately wants to break out from the confines of the society it is taking place in, but it takes some serious upheavals before it can get there.
I should start by saying that this is most definitely an actor’s movie. The picture above is illustrative of large swaths of the film where complex emotions are played out with very little dialogue. The action sits in the faces of the characters and much more is going on behind their eyes than is often happening in the scene around them. Because of this it would be very easy to write this film off as being either slow or boring, but both assertions would be missing the point of the experience. The director makes sure you notice every subtle shift of facial expression and every flicker of the eyes by using more close ups than I’ve seen for a long, long time. That being said, he does balance it out by giving us an equally large amount of beautifully lingering shots of the English country-side in all its glory. The director of photography on this film clearly had a wonderful time capturing the feel of the sunshine at different times of day, and in this world of blue or grey-shaded action-thrillers it is a welcome change to see a handsomely shot film that really takes joy in showing you a fully realised colour palette. The actors themselves are often shaded in the oranges and pinks of sunsets, adding another dimension to the emotions they are busy portraying. This gives the film as a whole a feeling of being painted in watercolours as it tries to evoke the feeling of a time that is long lost to us, and may have never truly existed outside of the author’s imagination. The only real criticism I have of the direction is that it never really stepped outside of the tried and true style that you expect from this genre of film. It would have been nice to have felt that a few riskier options were considered before calling “action”, but it is not something that really detracts from the movie as a whole.
Being that Thomas Hardy’s narrative is over one hundred and forty years old and has inspired so many stories since it was first written, the decision to lean more heavily on the emotions of the characters and the wistful longing for a time that was passing into memory even when this was first put down on paper makes a lot of sense. To the modern audience, especially one who may have no previous experience with Thomas Hardy’s works, the plot of the film and the actions of the characters can often come across as staid, clichéd or even unoriginal, so creating atmosphere to keep the audience’s attention becomes increasingly important. Earlier I said that this was an actor’s movie and the whole cast is clearly relishing the chance to get their teeth into some seriously meaty roles. Many of them may not have much in the way of dialogue, but most of them get at least one moment to show their inner turmoil in a very controlled and Victorian way. The main cast particularly have an almost ridiculous amount of time on screen saying and doing very little whilst doing a huge amount of acting. The standout performance is given by Carey Mulligan who takes the main character of Bathsheba Everdene and infuses her with such life that you can really believe that she exists outside of the frame. She is a captivating combination of enthusiasm, determination and extreme naïveté, who is all the more impressive for not always being entirely likable. From the opening scene you are shown that this is a woman who is not going to allow herself to be tied down to traditional feminine role and will fight to do what she feels is the right thing to do. Unfortunately her own fire and determination to be unpredictable and outspoken also prevent her from taking early opportunities for happiness, which she then spends the rest of the film obviously both regretting, resenting and trying to recapture. Although I regularly felt for her and the plights she was regularly winding up in, I also couldn’t feel entirely sorry for her as many were of her own making. Even the best main characters need a foil and in this story that is Gabriel Oak, played with a wonderful restraint by Matthias Schoenaerts. Gabriel is the rock around which the rest of the plot revolves. He is a man of low birth with high aspirations, but a respect for the societal order of things, which allows him to move in circles he might otherwise find impossible. Schoenaerts manages to show his evident skill and capability mainly through the way he carries himself, but also gives you the occasional look at the deep well of feeling that he carries inside like a weight, but this is not a weight that ever prevents him from doing what he thinks is the right thing. As a counterpoint to the slightly wild dreamer that is Miss Everdene he is perfectly cast. Outside of the main duo there is the delightfully damaged Sergeant Francis Troy, played to oily perfection by Tom Sturridge, who seems to come into the plot specifically to throw a spanner in the works. Plot device though his character may be, Sturridge gives him enough life and darkness that you cannot help but enjoy despising him whenever he is on screen. Finally this review would not be complete without mentioning the always brilliant Michael Sheen, who gives his character, William Boldwood, a squirmy desperation that is all too believable. All these characters are thrown into the maelstrom of emotion that is mainly of Miss Everdene’s creation and the results are impressive. Without a cast of this calibre it is easy to imagine that this film would have fallen completely flat and be nothing more than a handsomely lit, middle of the road, period piece.
Overall this is a film that is unlikely to surprise anyone who goes to see it. The story is one that everyone knows, or can guess pretty easily, from the get-go and there is little action to speak of and the direction is similar to what you’d expect from a television costume drama with a bigger budget, but that is not what this movie is about. This is a longing, romantic look at a time that has faded into the past and the troubles that the characters who inhabit the story go through. Although their story may not be the most original, the atmosphere and the depth of emotion that is on display here is definitely worthy of your time.
Three Moons out of Five. Solid entertainment.