There is no one, in my very humble opinion, who writes more beautifully about the world of nature than Thomas Hardy. Some choose books which allow them to escape to fantasy lands across distant galaxies but my preferred location for escapism is the inside of a Hardy novel. Perhaps not Jude the Obscure, but certainly the green, rolling hills and meandering lanes of Wessex, the semi-imaginary county which features in many of his novels. I do love a descriptive passage about nature, me. Especially when the charming landscape clashes so violently with the human tragedy unfolding within it. I read a Hardy novel every summer. He’s my fave.
It’s safe to say that I have been eagerly anticipating the release of Far From the Madding Crowd ever since I heard tell of its development. I thought the script was in good hands with David Nicholls, particularly because his 2008 adaptation of Tess for television, starring a show-stopping Gemma Arterton, was so good. However, as with every film adaptation of a novel (particularly a novel you love) there’s a worry that they’re going to get it wrong. To cut out the wrong parts, to cast the wrong actors and to ‘Hollywood-ify’ it beyond all recognition.
In some ways, these worries were not unfounded. But holy cow it’s beautiful. So much sky. One of the opening shots showed Bathsheba riding her horse up a gentle curve which looked like the globe, night sky spinning around it just as in the beginning of the novel:
‘To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this- the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement…The poetry of motion is a phrase much in use, and to enjoy the epic form of that gratification it is necessary to stand on a hill at a small hour of the night and… long and quietly watch your stately progress through the stars’.
The landscape shots are stunning. Carey Mulligan, although not the Bathsheba I pictured (why couldn’t they have given her black hair?!) is believable as an independent woman in a world dominated by men. The way she played feigning outrage at Troy’s advances while simultaneously revelling in the attention was genius. Matthias Schoenaerts looks the part, standing at roughly eight feet tall and a metre wide across the shoulders, and works as a solemn and thoroughly decent Gabriel. I was more than a little distracted by his Belgian accent, but then again perhaps it helped to characterise him as a man set apart from the rest.Tom Sturridge wasn’t given much of a chance to do Sergeant Troy justice, brutally diminished as his part was, but used what time he was allocated to deliver a strong performance. He didn’t come across as quite the evil bastard he is in the novel. Michael Sheen delivers a predictably brilliant and subtle performance as the heart-broken Boldwood. It’s a shame there isn’t sufficient time in the film to mine the depths of his devastation.
As a film, I enjoyed it. As an adaptation of the book, however, it fell short. I thought that broadly, there was a problem with the way that Bathsheba remained fairly constant throughout. In the novel, Bathsheba makes some bad life choices. She is a flawed, real woman, which is remarkable given that she was conjured into being by a man in 1874. She’s petulant, vain and prone to being won over by flattery. Events force her to change and to learn, and by the end of the book she is transformed. In the film she remains fairly likeable throughout.
Some of the more dramatic scenes in the novel, of which there are many, are brushed over in the film. The denouement at Boldwood’s Christmas shindig, for example, seemed to happen far too quickly and without good reason. In the novel he is properly unhinged but here his ‘crime of passion’ doesn’t ring true.
Some of the shots were clichéd and became repetitive. Close ups on Oak’s face were swiftly followed by close ups on Bathsheba’s face, all fluttering eyelashes and meaningful glances. I lost count of how many times we were shown side profiles of the two face to face, lips almost touching. Their inevitable union is never in any doubt.
This film is beautiful to look at. The costumes are gorgeous, the landscape is insanely picturesque, the soundtrack is perfect and the performances are great. But I can’t help but compare it with the novel it is based upon and come to the conclusion that some of what was omitted was integral to Bathsheba’s character arc and to the soul of the story. The film is consistently pretty and seems to run on an even keel with the odd dramatic set piece interrupting a steady timeline. Perhaps more could have been made of the highs and lows. Ultimately, there just isn’t time to do justice to a Hardy novel in two hours. The end result is pleasing but not quite up to scratch. ‘Twas ever thus with film adaptations.
[Feature Image: Parallel-pam]