“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (1998) Review
To my knowledge, there have been five adaptations of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd”. One of them is even a modern day adaptation. I have not seen this modern version of Hardy’s novel. But I have seen at least three adaptations, including the 1967 version directed by John Schlesinger.
“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” – at least the 1967 version – has been highly regarded by critics, moviegoers and fans of Hardy’s novel for nearly five decades. It is the adaptation that other ones have been measured against . . . much to their detriment. “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” was a different direction for Schlesinger. It would prove to be the first of five period productions directed by him. Schlesinger and screenwriter Frederic Raphael stuck as closely to Hardy’s novel as they possibly could. The movie was not a hundred percent adaptation of Hardy’s novel, but it was pretty close.
Anyone familiar with Hardy’s novel know the tale. It begins with a young 19th century Englishwoman named Bathsheba Everdene, living on a farm with her aunt, Mrs. Hurst. She meets Gabriel Oak, a former shepherd who has leased and stocked a sheep farm. Gabriel falls in love with Bathsheba and eventually proposes marriage. Although she likes Gabriel, Bathsheba values her independence too much and rejects his marriage proposal. Gabriel’s fortunes take a worse for turn, when his inexperienced sheep dog drives his flock of sheep over a cliff, bankrupting him. Bathsheba, on the other hand, inherits her uncle’s prosperous estate. Their paths crosses again, and she ends up hiring Gabriel as her new shepherd.
Bathsheba has also become acquainted with her new neighbor, the wealthy farmer John Boldwood, who becomes romantically obsessed with her after she sends him a Valentine’s Day card as a joke. He sets about wooing her in a persistent manner that she finds difficult to ignore. But just as Bathsheba is about to consider Mr. Boldwood as a potential husband, Sergeant Frank Troy enters her life and she becomes infatuated with him. Frank was set to marry one of Bathsheba’s former servants, a young woman named Fanny Robin. Unfortunately, the latter showed up at the wrong church for the wedding and an angry and humiliated Frank called off the wedding. Bathsheba finds herself in the middle of a rather unpleasant love triangle between Boldwood and Frank, while Gabriel can only watch helplessly as the situation develops into tragedy.
“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” is a beautiful movie to behold . . . visually. One can credit the movie’s sweeping and colorful look to its iconic cinematographer Nicolas Roeg. Thanks to the latter, the English counties of Wiltshire and Dorset never looked lovelier. Not surprisingly, Roeg earned a BAFTA nomination for his work. The movie also benefited from Richard Macdonald’s production designs, which did an excellent job in recreating rural England in the mid 19th century. This was especially apparent in those scenes that featured Gabriel’s arrival at Shottwood, and his attempts to get hired as a bailiff or a shepherd at a hiring fair; the harvest meal at the Everdene farm; Bathsheba’s meeting with Frank in Bath; the rural fair attended by Bathsheba and Mr. Boldwood; and the Christmas party held by Mr. Boldwood. I will not pretend that I found Richard Rodney Bennett’s score particularly memorable. But I must admit that it blended well with the movie’s plot and Schlesinger’s direction. I also noticed that Bennett added traditional English folk songs in various scenes throughout the movie.
I have seen at least two movie versions and one television adaptation of Hardy’s novel. And it occurred to me that the main reason why I ended up enjoying all three adaptations so much is that I really liked Hardy’s tale. I really do. More importantly, all three adaptations, including this 1967 movie, did an excellent job in capturing the novel’s spirit. With a running time of 169 minutes, “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” took its time in conveying Hardy’s story . . . with a few little shortcuts. And thanks to Schlesinger’s direction and Raphael’s screenplay, the movie not only recaptured both the idyllic nature of 19th century rural England, but also its harsh realities. More importantly, the movie brought alive to the screen, Hardy’s complex characters and romances. Hollywood once made a movie about a woman torn between three men in 1941’s “TOM, DICK, AND HARRY” with Ginger Rogers. But the complexity between the one woman and the three men was nothing in compare to this tale. Especially, when the leading lady is such a complex and ambiguous character like Bathsheba Everdene. Another aspect of “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” that I enjoyed were the interactions between the movie’s leads and the supporting cast who portrayed Bathsheba’s employees. Like her relationships with Gabriel, Frank and Mr. Boldwood; the leading lady’s relationships with her employees – especially the women who worked inside her home – proved to be very interesting.
There was a good deal of controversy when Julie Christie was announced as the actress to portray Bathsheba Everdene. Apparently, the media did not consider her capable of portraying the tumultuous mid-Victorian maiden . . . or any other period character. Well, she proved them wrong. Christie gave a very skillful and nuanced performance as the ambiguous Bathsheba, capturing the character’s passion, vanity and at times, insecurity. Terence Stamp was another actor more associated with the Swinging Sixties scene in London, but unlike Christie, his casting did not generate any controversy. I might as well place my cards on the table. I think Stamp proved to be the best Frank Troy I have seen on screen, despite the first-rate performances of the other two actors I have seen in role. He really did an excellent job in re-creating Frank’s charm, roguishness and unstable nature. Thanks to Stamp’s performance, I can see why Schlesinger became so fascinated with the character.
Despite Christie and Stamp’s popularity with moviegoers, the two actors who walked away with nominations and an award were Peter Finch and Alan Bates. No matter how interesting all of the other characters were, I personally found the William Boldwood character to be the most fascinating one in Hardy’s tale. And Peter Finch, who won the National Board of Review Award for Best Actor did a superb job in bringing the character to life. Finch beautifully re-captured the nuances of a character that I not only found sympathetic, but also a bit frightening at times. Alan Bates earned a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of the stalwart Gabriel Oak, which I believe he fully deserved. I think portraying such a minimalist character like Gabriel must be quite difficult for any actor. He is a character that required real skill and subtlety. Bates certainly did the job. The actor managed to convey the passion that Gabriel harbored for Bathsheba without any theatrical acting and at the same time, convey the character’s introverted and sensible nature. The movie also benefited from some skillful and solid work from its supporting cast that included Golden Globe nominee Prunella Ransome, who portrayed the tragic Fanny Robin; Fiona Walker (from 1972’s “EMMA”); Alison Leggatt; John Barrett; and iconic character actor, Freddie Jones.
As much as I enjoyed “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, there were some aspects of the production that I found troublesome. Earlier, I had pointed out that Schlesinger had seemed so fascinated by the Frank Troy character. And while this contributed to Terence Stamp’s presence in the movie, Schlesinger’s handling of the character threatened to overshadow the entire movie. Quite frankly, he seemed a bit too obsessed with Frank for my tastes. This heavy emphasis on Frank – especially in two-thirds of the movie – also seemed to overshadow Bathsheba’s relationship with Gabriel Oak. At one point, I found myself wondering what happened to the character. Worse, the chemistry between Julie Christie and Alan Bates had somewhat dissipated by the movie’s last act to the point that it barely seemed to exist by the end of the movie. And Schlesinger allowed the “ghost” of Frank Troy to hover over Bathsheba and Gabriel’s future relationship by ending the movie with a shot of a toy soldier inside the Everdeen-Oak household. No wonder Stamp was credited as the male lead in this film.
There were other aspects of “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” that either troubled me or failed to impress me. I am at a loss on how Prunella Ransome earned a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Fanny Robin. Mind you, she gave a very good performance. But she was on the screen for such a small amount of time that there seemed to be no opportunity for the narrative to delve into her character. Ransome’s Fanny came off as a plot device and a part of me cannot help but blame Hardy’s original novel for this failure. Although I cannot deny that Nicholas Roeg’s cinematography was visually beautiful to me; I also found myself annoyed by his and Schlesinger’s overuse of far shots. It reminded me of how director William Wyler and cinematographer Franz F. Planer nearly went overboard in their use of far shots in the 1958 western, “THE BIG COUNTRY”. I read somewhere that Alan Barrett had earned a BAFTA nomination for Best Costume Designs for this film. I do not mean to be cruel, but how in the hell did that happened? I have to be frank. I was not impressed with the costumes featured in this film. Although I managed to spot a few costumes that struck me as a well-done re-creation of fashion in the mid-to-late 1860s, most of the other costumes looked as if they had been rented from a warehouse in Hollywood or London. Not impressed at all.
Aside from my complaints, I enjoyed “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” very much. A good deal of delight in the film originated with Thomas Hardy’s original tale. But if I must be honest, a good deal of filmmakers have screwed up a potential adaptation with either bad writing, bad direction or both. Thankfully, I cannot say the same about “FAR FROM MADDING CROWD”. Thanks to the first-rate artistry of the film’s crew, a well-written screenplay by Frederic Raphael, a very talented cast led by Julie Christie; director John Schlesinger did an excellent in bringing Hardy’s tale to the screen.