Far From the Madding Crowd – or Dorset’s Answer to Calamity Jane

A wet Sunday bank holiday afternoon in Lancaster and there’s not a great deal of choice when it comes to finding a pleasurable distraction. Cinema is often the best bet; I opted for a screening of the latest adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, though now this has left me wishing I’d rather gone for the new Cinderella!

Under Thomas Vinterberg’s direction and with David Nicholls’ screenplay, the film is found wanting on so many levels. Displacing the Hardyesque tones of a world fatally shaped by inequalities and social injustices, the cinematic text opts for a period romp through England’s pastures green with lashings of neoliberal, ‘girl speak’. Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) acts like nineteenth-century Dorset’s answer to Calamity Jane; adept on horseback and at toiling in the fields, her self-proclaimed ‘independence’ wars with choosing from the maddening crowds of men – well three of them anyway – the man who might ‘tame’ her. Have me, my sheep, along with the promise of a piano and cucumber frame, is the first proposal from shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), otherwise a man of very few words (lots of sultry gazing at the seemingly unattainable object of his affections). ‘Interesting pigs’ and yet another piano come with the offer of marriage from the middle-aged, wealthy, farmer Boldwood (Michael Sheen), while the dashing young Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge) woes with a swashbuckling bit of swordplay out in the woods. A good judge of livestock, Bathsheba is hopelessly at sea when it comes to the male species, since the language of love is, as our heroine in observes in one of her wiser moments, a ‘language constructed by men’ to express their feelings. Choosing the duplicitous and abusive Troy she jeopardises her fragile hold on the farming property she has inherited from her uncle, the Everdene estate. A subplot involving Troy’s lost love and former employee on the estate, Fanny Robbin, reveals where his affections really lie – a truth brought home, literally speaking, as Fanny’s dead body and newly born child are carted back to the farm (all of which I suspect is a bit hard to follow if you haven’t read the book, or seen Schlesinger’s 1967 movie version, since the film for all its meandering slowness makes some extraordinary transitional cuts as far as the narrative is concerned). Meanwhile, an increasingly lovelorn, infatuated Boldwood comes to a sticky (prison) end after shooting Bathsheba’s prodigal husband (Troy goes missing after Fanny’s death, is presumed dead after drowning, but reappears ready for another round of domestic abuse).

In the background, a chorus of rustics appear to have a jolly time of it throughout, making ridiculously light of what in reality would have been back-breaking, gruelling work. Credit is due, however, to some arresting shots that bring into focus the brutal beauty of the rural environment, most notably the very early scene in which Gabriel loses his flock, herded over a cliff’s edge by his overzealous sheepdog-in-training.

Gabriel’s fortunes fall as Bathsheba’s rise; only when there is something of an economic levelling out between them is the long suffering shepherd finally get to ‘tame’ his girl. Despite the fact that it passes the Bechdel Test http://static1.squarespace.com/static/52a55a99e4b06d02c35486d9/t/52c243dae4b0d825d8151d62/
1388463067728/therule.jpeg (well, just about, Bathsheba does manage some small talk on the subject of managing the farm with her right-hand girl, Liddy, before they move on to the seemingly more engrossing subject of men), this adaptation ultimately feels like it sets today’s ‘woman question’ back a century or two. Far better to re/read Hardy’s novel than spend a maddening two hours at the cinema.

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