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Far from the Madding Crowd

Madding Crowd

Jeez, won't someone make a decision already? Base it on who
has the best facial hair, come on.

dir: Thomas Vinterberg


In this current era of remaking the classics (which seems to have lasted since at least, oh, about 1915 up to the present), this is the most recent of the ‘classics’ of English Literature that I’ve been privileged enough to see, well, this week.

We haven’t exactly been deprived of ‘prestige’ period pieces in the last bunch of years. There were the recent versions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights that I got to see and enjoy. The world doesn’t need more Pride and Prejudice versions, but I don’t doubt they’re on the way. I have even less doubt that there are versions of Madame Bovary and a million Dickens redos about to come out too.

It’s all good, they’re classic stories, or should that be ‘classic’. Classic because people say they’re classic. Thomas Hardy is certainly someone from the high school homework section of the literary canon. There haven’t been umpteen versions of this story thus far; this is the second I can think of, so it’s not over-represented, for sure.

As such to many viewers the characters and story could be all shiny and new. To me, it is a book I remember fondly from, like, 25 years ago, and that I still have some affection for.

There are three things that I have carried with me all these years from having read and loved Far from the Madding Crowd: its vivid depiction of the farming life in the 1870s Britain, which was like nothing I knew anything about living as I did in suburbia; the character and bold, striking appearance of Bathsheba Everdene, who I thought was it and a bit, and the stoic, noble nature of Gabriel Oak, the saintly Oak that grounds the story.

For the longest time I carried with me these ideas, romantic and otherwise, that maybe had an impact on who I thought I was and what I thought would be reasonable in relationships when I grew up. Suffice to say I made the same mistakes everyone else makes when they believe that literature reveals a template for life rather than just, at best, some recognisable aspects of the human condition.

No, waiting for a thousand years doesn’t actually mean that the ‘girl’ you like will eventually tire of other vital, attractive, charismatic people and settle for your boring arse just because you’ve pined so loyally for all those years.

If anything, with that attitude, you’d fully deserve to die alone in the gutter unlamented and unmourned by anyone other than your bookie and your drug dealer.

Gabriel Oak is perhaps the most unbelievably noble and unbelievably stoic salt of the earth type ‘hero’ in all of literature. Eminently practical, thoughtful and wise beyond his years, he is purely of the land, and absolutely never does anything wrong. He is as humble as he is handsome, in a rugged manly way, not in any of this Hemsworth chiselled, six pack packing metrosexual kind of way, no.

He is a being so good, so wholesome that we’re meant to believe any woman, especially Bathsheba, would be a fool, a foolish fool, not to adore him.

Thing is though, even if this is set in the 1870s, Bathsheba Everdene is an independent minded woman who is not looking for the same things that presumably every other woman of her age and station in life are looking for. ‘Independent-minded woman’ meant a completely different thing in that context than it does now. These days ‘independent minded woman’ can mean everything from not shaving your armpits to someone who wears slightly less make up (rebel). Back then it could have meant being jailed, tarred and feathered or institutionalised for ‘hysteria’ for refusing some scumbag gentry’s advances.

Gabriel Oak is played by some Belgian actor called Matthias Schoenaerts who I don’t know from Adam. Carey Mulligan plays Bathsheba. Mulligan I do know. She’s fine in the right role. She’s fine as Bathsheba, though, again, like the flick Julie Christie starred in from 1967, she doesn’t really look anything like the woman described in the novel.

No matter. This is a flick of longing glances and plenty left unspoken, but plenty a time it’s also about the overtly spoken. Bathsheba is a prepossessed, forthright, proud but naïve character in a lot of ways. She yearns to be taken seriously for her work on the land, not aspiring to be landed gentry just for the sake of it. She also, wonderfully, claims not to want to be ‘completed’ by marriage, and does not aspire to it for its own sake.

When she and Gabriel first meet, they are not exactly social class equals, but at the very least the distance between them is not so pronounced. In the same way that James Bond would basically imply through innuendo the question “wanna fuck?” within seconds of meeting various women in oh so many of his movies, in this flick Gabriel is very much like “Hi, nice to meet you, marry me, what was your name again?” Sure he’s struck by how alive Bathsheba is (after seeing her when she’s had the temerity to go riding on her horse, and NOT SIDE SADDLE EITHER like a proper lady would), but it’s because he’s nice and he can protect her and he knows what’s good for her etc etc.

Circumstances change, though. He ends up destitute, and she becomes queen of a debt-laden farm, meaning they’re completely unable to interact at all anymore as anything other than two people from unbridgeable social distances. He is a peasant, and she is lady of the manor. It would not do, simply put.

Gabriel, though, like the wood that shares his surname, is solid. He’s not for crumbling, or for changing his mind, or doing anything other than be stoic and forthright and creepily protective of Bathsheba. He spends ninety per cent of the film gazing soulfully and longingly at her, as if that’s ever enough.

More guys enter the picture; more guys want to enter Bathsheba’s picture, if you get what I mean, and I think you do (I’m talking about sex, yes, that great wrecker of everything). One of them is an older man whose name I’m afraid is false advertising, being Mr Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and the other is a young arrogant cavalry sergeant called Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge).

Troy is saddled with a terrible moustache, but has the benefit of being closest to Bathsheba in age, and is probably handsome (in some way only she can see). She can’t see past the terrible moustache and flash uniform and dashing ways and see the horrible man that lurks beneath. Of all the men (unfortunately for Bathsheba), he isn’t the one who politely asks for her hand, or meekly, timidly expresses his admiration for her in gentle, respectful ways.

No, he just reaches out, literally after he dazzles her with his swordplay, and takes it.

Passion. That’s the one thing the other two guys don’t inspire in Bathsheba. Only through Troy are her passions enflamed.

Yes, these are archaic, courtly terms for what we have since discovered through science and Cosmopolitan magazine as thus: neither Gabriel’s devotion nor Boldwood’s desperation (very well conveyed in a very underserved role by Sheen) gets Bathsheba wet: Troy does, and then some, and that means she must be punished for it.

The film truncates the last part of the story, and that’s probably a good thing. Events meant to cover seven years or so are covered by a single year, and I’m fine with that. I didn’t really want at least two of these odious characters to have to linger around any longer than they had to. As melodrama, well, I’m not sure whether this really works that well for people seeing it for the first time. A woman pursued by multiple suitors is hardly a novel idea; whether it’s vampires, werewolves, mermaids, celebrities or regular humans with serviceable working parts, we’ve seen it thousands of times before.

Who WILL she choose? Who indeed…

Is it a story worth telling? I’m not a hundred per cent sure on that. It didn’t strike me so much in Eng Lit classes, but it did while watching this that it’s a pretty harshly misogynistic kind of tale. I certainly recall class discussions where we debated whether Hardy, in this book and in Tess of the D’Urbervilles was almost something of a proto-feminist writer, representing as he did the horribly captive position of women within these eras, the lack of choice or escape. Still, this patronising story to me recalls the kind of bitter chap who sits there stroking himself into a fury hoping for horrible experiences to befall the object of his rejected affections so that she’ll come crawling back to him once the other ‘flash’ chaps treat her terribly. So, that person you claim to care about, you want bad things to befall her? And that's love, in your book, yeah?

Sure she’ll come back, champ, and she’ll finally see what a great catch you are. Sure she will.

On the other hand, is it a story well told? I think so. The depictions of the landscape and the farm work are the most important to me, recalling as they do the most beautiful pastoral moments of the book. I’m not kidding, I love those scenes of the people working on the farm, and Gabriel with his eyes suffused with longing, and Bathsheba, cheerful, wounded, hopeful, proud, daring to look back defiantly. I think her interactions with the loyal good farmer are the best part of the flick, and that she carries those scenes, mostly because Matthias Schoenaerts can’t hide his accent.

Doesn’t matter that much. In the end it’s about those rolling hills, getting the crops undercover in time, having a character kill your rival to clear the way forward because you were never going to have the balls to do anything yourself, and then everything falling in your lap before the credits roll.

Now THAT'S Romance, man-style.

8 minutes into which you eventually realise the main character is Gabriel, making this flick more of a bromance out of 10

“You've never seen you through a man's eyes. It's like not being able to think.” – now that’s how you get into a lady’s knickers, with gobbledygook like that – Far from the Madding Crowd