“Why is love such a misery?”
Thomas Hardy’s novel was one of the texts I was set for my A-Level English Literature course and I hated it. I hated the slow pace, the unnecessarily detailed sections (there were, I recall, about three pages describing a barn on a hillside which no-one ever entered or discussed again) and the cloyingly sweet pastoral setting. Dorset in winter isn’t idyllic, whatever Hardy would have you believe. While that should make it surprising that I even risked the near-three hour film adaptation, it does also mean that I won’t spend these notes banging on “it isn’t as good as the book” as I did with Watchmen and The Damned United recently!
Such pressing reasons not to like (or even watch) Far From The Madding Crowd were outweighed by the Kinks connection, my admiration for Schlesinger’s sixties films, the cinematography of Nic Roeg and Terry Stamp. I love Terence Stamp. When I was commenting having seen Valkyrie, I said “This is Terry Stamp doing an advert for that life insurance that only the over-50s can have“. The guy is basically sleepwalking his way through risible film after risible film these days (his last few films have been Valkyrie, Yes Man, Get Smart and Wanted) but this shouldn’t detract from the fact that he is an incredibly talented, charismatic actor with some superb performances behind him. For me, this is one of them. There is a moment where Stamp turns to Julie Christie with cold-eyes and says “this woman is more to me dead as she is than you ever were or are or could be” and you are simply awestruck. He chills you to the bone as he destroys her with spite and malice by completely underplaying it. The words are delivered deliciously, with venom. It is a powerhouse performance, he is breathtaking. The beauty of Jude Law combined with the presence of a young (pre-self-parodying) Pacino. Amazing stuff. But what a wasted talent!
No-one else here hits quite those heights, but there is still a great deal to admire here. Julie Christie plays Bathsheba Everdene with just the right mix of arrogance and insecurity, her independence is stripped away little-by-little until Troy feels compelled to admonish her “don’t be so desperate”. She skilfully retains a degree of ambiguity in the early stages and it is never truly clear whether Bathsheba is being purposely cruel or simply immature. Smashing performance. Peter Finch, the raving mad prophet of the airwaves from Network, plays Francis Boldwood another man on the verge of a nervous breakdown here- albeit with much greater composure. Here he internalises the trauma, expressing it subtly; a quiver of the eyebrow, a distant glance, a mouth opening wordlessly.
The central performance is given by Alan Bates in the role of Gabriel Oak. His character is the first and last that we see and provides the moral compass for the film. He is always honest, if respectful, always thoughtful and exemplifies the traditional values of moral certitude and diligent stoicism. His response upon being financially ruined by a sad quirk of fate is simply to remark “Thank God I am not married. And this serene acceptance of events is what works against Bates, who is a fine actor, because he has nothing to do but look calm and read his lines. It’s no coincidence that the most virtuous character is called Gabriel, is it? Actually, I may as well moan about something that has bugged me since 1991- Far From The Madding Crowd has a character called Oak who is solid and dependable and one called Troy who is handsome but comes with hidden defects. This is like giving them a white ten gallon hat and a black one- great literature my arse! I’ll stop now, I’ve promised myself that I wouldn’t talk about the book, only the film.
The mechanics of the film are impressive, Roeg captures the landscape beautifully giving a sense of the absolute surrender to the elements which each character suffers from (indeed Boldwood, through machinery, is the only character who attempts to master his circumstances- as he does with his attempted bribery of Troy, a nice touch- but this proves futile). The soundtrack, including originally composed folk songs, by Richard Rodney Bennett has a lilting pastoral beauty which serves to build the mood of the piece beautifully. These things, in addition to the suppressed passion in the performances, are co-ordinated by Schesinger to produce a slightly arid and slightly too worthy reading of the novel. It is almost as if he was so determined to move away from the small-scale urban setting of his great opening trio of films (A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar and Darling) that this overtook any other considerations. It doesn’t ruin the film at all, but it does create a film where there are a few fantastic set-pieces (the unexpectedly harrowing scene where the sheepdog runs the sheep over the cliff, the tension of Gabriel and Bathsheba battling the storm, the carnival, the sword exercise where Troy seduces Bathsheba) interspersed with some disappointing ones (the obvious soft-focus scene where Boldwood first sees Bathsheba, the slow-motion shot of Bathsheba tossing the corn in the cornmarket, the harvest dance and the marketplace scene where Oak looks for work).
And so it’s a good film, but still a disappointing one. Worth seeing again, but only when I’m in a patient mood 6/10.