Friday, 1 May 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd

In 2012, Thomas Vinterberg explored the vile spectre of paedophilia with The Hunt, an elegantly cruel movie forming around the swift destruction of a good man’s reputation at the hands of his close-knit community. Featuring the ever brilliant Mads Mikkelsen as the blameless victim of wicked rumours, the Dane’s film was as courageous as it was handsome, a bleak portrait on the smoothest canvas. 

Given the mood there, and the close working relationship with his provocative compatriot Lars Von Trier, Vinterberg seemed something of a left-field choice when it was announced that he would direct Far From the Madding Crowd, the latest take on Thomas Hardy’s 1874 classic and a pillar of the pastoral idyll. 

Remarkably, then, considering the auteur’s penchant for challenging material, his sumptuous, traditional spin on a beloved novel features only the merest hint of a dark swirl beneath the surface. Truthfully, such is the reined-in nature of Vinterberg’s beautifully realised drama, that much of the strife invented by Hardy to plague his characters falls by the wayside, abandoned in the hope of keeping this madding crowd firmly on the straight and narrow.

Exquisite to behold, featuring a host of natural performances and appropriately deferential to its wondrous source material, Far From the Madding Crowd is every inch the high-end update of a story brought to the screen more than once. Measured against John Schlesinger’s seminal interpretation from 1967 — famously starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates — Vinterberg’s iteration is, at 118 minutes, a much leaner effort. Indeed, it is in this respect that the picture disappoints, the sense that there exists much more to explore never quite dissipating as it winds its way, with undeniable grace, along a path that is familiar but significantly less involving. There is simply not enough to grab hold of. 

That said, the 2015 edition is a worthy addition to Hardy’s canon, blessed with a talented cast and displaying a depth of soul to rival anything that has gone before. 

The tale is, of course, a familiar one. The educated and refined Bathsheba Everdene (Carrie Mulligan) lives with her aunt in Victorian rural Dorset, farming their modest holding and settled on finding a position as a governess. On the neighbouring farm, Matthias Schoenaerts’s Gabriel Oak is a strapping bachelor with respectable prospects, the very essence of the loyal and honest Englishman. Upon first meeting Bathsheba, Gabriel is smitten and soon proposes. Politely rejecting his advances, she suggests that a man as gentle and unassuming as he could never tame her wilful spirit.

When she inherits a fortune from her uncle and he sees his investment fail in horrifying and starkly finite terms, their fortunes are reversed. Eventually, however, Gabriel comes once more into Bathsheba’s orbit as a lowly mere shepherd on her burgeoning estate, all golden hay fields, burbling brooks and bucolic innocence. 

Likely still in love with his mistress, considered while she is headstrong, he remains steadfast in her employ and committed to the job he desperately requires. When both characters share the screen, the film soars. David Nicholls’s delicate script infuses their exchanges with a crackling tension, romantic rather than overtly sexual. 

Vinterberg and Mulligan discern tangible heat beneath Bathsheba’s prim and unbending exterior — a capable avatar for contemporary female empowerment — while Schoenaerts displays a soulful elegance that contrasts with Bates’s earthier, moulded-from-the-Wessex-soil depiction. The Belgian hides his Flemish tones beneath a neutral English inflection and excels to such an extent that his absence is keenly felt when the two other main strands of the plot present themselves.

Neither competing narrative is especially uninteresting; yet, such is the emotional investment in the primary dynamic, these equally vital elements suffer by comparison. In and of themselves, both Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge succeed in portraying wealthy farmer William Boldwood and raffish soldier Francis Troy, respectively. Boldwood’s stunted awkwardness quickly gives way to a destructive obsession with Bathsheba that owes much to her casual disregard for his mental wellbeing. Troy, meanwhile, exploits her unworldly naivety to amuse himself, though he is the creature of a complex sensitivity that is never less than intriguing. 

No, the problems relate to pacing. Little of the running time is dedicated to these characters, an oversight that serves to render Troy’s sensual romance with Bathsheba a fleeting dalliance and his own personal tragedies emotionally hollow. The finale, too, sags, a missed opportunity sadly less dramatic than it should have been. 

Those weaknesses aside, the anchoring relationship saves Vinterberg’s period piece from outright disappointment. Alongside the encroaching deterioration of the rural milieu — touched on here, briefly — it is Bathsheba and Gabriel who populate the main event, a pairing that tugs at the heartstrings and courses with quiet power. If only the undercard felt as weighty. 

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