Wednesday, 27 May 2015

A Hollowed-Out Classic - Far from the Madding Crowd


I'll start with the whinges, shall I?

Dorset, England is not 200 miles outside London, as the introduction tells us. Nor, in the context of Hardy's Wessex, is it "Dorset". It just looks and smells like it.

And in the 19th Century, "Crime of Passion" was not a legal defence against hanging. The one that was, was Insanity. Which, especially if you are showing signs of severe mental distress, could plausibly be proven in some cases. I'll say no more. Spoilers.


Not bad. Carey Mulligan gets nearly everything right about Bathsheba. Strong - actually stronger than in the book - feisty, veering between fierceness, wildness, tenderness and unfairness. Girlish, at times. But of course, like most Jane Austen heroines, we have a tendency to forget just how young Hardy's are. Bathsheba storms on the scene aged roughly twenty, not nearly thirty. And that, when she starts sacking bailiffs and running farms on her own, makes a difference, and would make a cinematic differnce. Enough. I've harped on too much. Mulligan plays everything well.

Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak - tall, stolid, calm, dependable. Everything Oak should be in that respect. His silences speak volumes. His facial expressions great. His accent - just where in Wessex did Hardy locate Flanders? I mean, Wessex was the last place in England to preserve the "d" in the word "three", long after those of us in the Danelaw took to pronouncing our "th"s. So there's a dialectal link there. But Oak is immutable, solid, strong as a.... hang on, I'll think of a simile. He's part of the Wessex landscape. He should speak yokel, not sound like Jan Molby did after 10 years in Liverpool.

Michael Sheen as Boldwood - excellent. Treading the fine line between love, dignity, and breakdown. Really good, understated acting. He makes Boldwood look rather more attractive than Hardy paints, which makes the Valentine joke just a little less ironic.

And I really liked Tom Sturridge's playing of Troy. I liked the brittleness of his bravado, the sense that, under the charming abuser, he was actually a weak, useless flake.


Sadly, that's all the cast you can really talk about. The rush to pack the story into two hours meant we lost the light and shade, fun and yokel strangeness of Hardy's book. In jumping from set-piece to set-piece where Gabriel Oak, Action Man, saves the day again and again, we lose the things that make early Hardy so much more than a retailer of cow-pat melodrama. Joseph Poorgrass isn't dim enough. Jan Coggan - firm friend of Oak, provider of a room and a listening ear - gets barely a mention. Susan Tall, an absolutely cracking minor character in the original, not even mentioned - I think I may have heard her useless husband, Laban, mentioned at some point. Fanny Robin is so beautiful, so tragic and yet the poignancy of her life is sketched in so briefly. Without a bit more back story, the way Bathsheba takes the coffin into her house makes little sense.

The rush means we lose scenes that are important as well. The early scene where Bathsheba saves Gabriel's life, gone. The drunkenness in the tavern at Roy Town, where Joseph is declared unfit to drive due to a "multiplying eye". The circus scenes. And two scenes in particular. That weird, tragic event where Troy is overcome by the wreckage the gurgoyle has made to Fanny's grave - shedding light on the depths of passion Troy has for Fanny, and giving him some sympathy and more support for his heading out to sea sans culottes, as it were. And then the telling moment when Oak save's Bathsheba's harvest from the storm, and Oak discovers that Boldwood couldn't be bothered to protect his own. Key clues, chucked away for brevity.

A hollowed-out classic

So we have a hollowed-out classic. A love parallelogram sketched in, in front of some glorious scenery. It was like watching a filmed version not of a Hardy novel, but of the Hardy Plot Generator you can find on the full-screen version of this site. Smashing acting, lovely scenery, but no soul. I don't think it's unfair to judge a film on the book it's based on. We can make allowances for brevity, we know things have to be cut and rearranged. But to lose story and meaning for no purpose let me take the example of the singing at the Harvest Supper. In the original, Oak is asked to play flute while Bathsheba and Boldwood sing their duet. It's a symbolic moment - they are apparently to be married, while he is to play the supporting role he always does. But the song itself is "On the Banks of Allan Water". The story of a young woman who is stolen away by a soldier. It's prophetic. The mashup of "Seeds of Love" which is sung in the film, is at best rueful. What was the point?

Enough. If you like costume dramas and flying sheep, nice scenery and good acting, this is the sort of thing you'll like. It'll be on Sky Movies soon. I'm off to read both volumes of The Dynasts. That'll teach me to moan about things being rushed.


  1. We saw it last week and I fully agree - it felt so rushed, and if you didn't know the story already, I think you'd get very confused in a couple of spots.

  2. Fanny Robin's the heroine and my favourite character. I did this for O Level Eng Lit in 1980. I liked it... Oddly. If it's missing those key scenes then I think it's the Moomin film for me .


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