Hardy perennial

Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy’s tale of one woman, three men and some unfortunate sheep, was back on the big screen this year. Viv Wilby feeling the pull of the past, finds its hard to better the John Schlesinger version, which is out on Blu-ray on Monday.

Terry and Julie

My parents were married in 1967, the year that John Schlesinger’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd was released. They tell a story about the time they went to see this new release in a fleapit on the edge of the sheep-farming country of the Lancashire Pennines. Midway through the film an old man’s voice piped up. ‘Tha’s a steam thresher! A steam thresher!’ To which everyone else in the cinema chorused ‘Aye.’

I tell this story because I think it’s quite funny (Terry and Julie not quite as sexy as some old farm machinery), but also – if I can be indulged for a moment – because it the way it highlights links to a real and lived agricultural past. The old man who was so excited about the steam thresher may have been born not long after the original novel was written back in 1874. Hardy, a writer obsessed with the past and how we can never quite escape it, would have approved, I think.

Far From the Madding Crowd came back with a bang this year. A restored version of Schlesinger’s film played in cinemas earlier this year, and it’s about to be released on Blu-ray. And of course Danish director Thomas Vinterberg offered up his own take on the tale in a film released at the start of May.

Carey Mulligan, who plays Hardy’s heroine Bathsheba Everdene in the Vinterberg film, described Far From the Madding Crowd as a coming-of-age story, and I guess that’s a neat way of looking at it. Bathsheba is a poor but educated Wessex girl whose fortunes change when she  inherits her uncle’s farm. Determined to be a success, and not to be any man’s property, the story, largely confined to a single year (we can chart the action from Valentine’s Day through to Christmas) is concerned with how she faces up to her responsibilities, how she asserts herself in a male-dominated world  and how she deals with and deflects the attentions of three suitors: down-to-earth shepherd Gabriel Oak; repressed gentleman farmer William Boldwood; and dashing soldier Sergeant Frank Troy. Bathsheba makes some bad choices, tragedy strikes, hard lessons are learned and there’s a sort-of happy ending.

I was a little disappointed in Vinterberg’s version. It attempts to be more avowedly feminist than the Schlesinger – the first shot is Bathsheba in leather pants on horseback telling us in voiceover what a free spirit she is – and as a consequence it goes a bit easier on her than either Hardy or Schlesinger. Some of her more coquettish actions are excised: there’s no overt marriage proposal included in her valentine to Boldwood, for instance. Of the three suitors, Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts probably comes off best as Gabriel Oak, although his golden good looks, married with the character’s good sense, makes him almost too attractive. Tom Sturridge is badly miscast as Troy. Although around the same age as Terence Stamp was when he played the part in the 1967 film, Sturridge looks far too young and acts it far too posh. When he’s helping with the haymaking on Bathsheba’s farm, I could only think of a public school gapper dabbling in a spot of agritourism before heading off to Exeter to study geography. Sturridge is also a singularly uncharismatic presence – again, in marked contrast to Stamp – and he and Mulligan have no chemistry. He’s not helped by an adaptation that condenses and elides much of the Troy sections of the story, reducing the importance and impact of the character.

But I want to talk about the Schlesinger film, and if I can return to this theme of the past, and how near it can seem, I was struck on my latest viewing about how much the swinging 1960s shines through the costume drama. Schlesinger, had of course directed Julie Christie in Billy Liar and Darling, two key British films of the 60s, and, even in a dramatisation of a Victorian novel, he can’t quite shake the influence of the decade off. If the old man in Lancashire could almost reach out and touch the his boyhood, so we are tantalised with visions of the 60s. Far From the Madding Crowd is as much Waterloo Sunset as it is Wessex.

The casting is pitch perfect and showcases three distinct modes of actor that seemed to exist at that precise moment in time. Ageing matinee idol Peter Finch, as Farmer Boldwood, aloof and intense, and like his character, about to be upstaged by some working class talent; the cockney flash and swagger of Terence Stamp (in his scarlet jacket, a ringer for George Best) as Troy; and plain old kitchen-sinky northerner Alan Bates as plain old horny-handed sensible Gabriel Oak. Of the principals, it’s probably Christie’s Bathsheba who is a weakish link, always rather more Chelsea than Casterbridge, with her smoky eyes and pale lipstick and backcombed hair. But Christie is good at playing alluring enigmas, and she’s a decent fit with Bathsheba whose capriciousness is not always psychologically credible.

The film is also faithful to Hardy’s vision of Bathsheba’s farm as a kind of idealised co-operative,  populated by a community of rustic weirdos and country bumpkins – the sisters, Patience and Soberness, always made a particular impression on me – who nonetheless, under the right influences, work together. This communal sensibility, coupled with the rural setting and the use of traditional music and songs reflects the late 60s spirit of festivals, free love and folk.

Even a key scene in which Bathsheba’s breaks open a coffin to see who is inside, has a gothic creepiness redolent of the best Hammer horror. By contrast, the equivalent scene in Vinterberg’s adaptation is underpowered and antiseptic.

It would be remiss to talk about Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd without mentioning Frederic Raphael’s screenplay, Richard Rodney Bennett’s score and, particularly Nic Roeg’s cinematography. There’s a real weirdness to some of the shots, that works well with the occasional weirdness of Hardy’s plotting. A birdseye view of Gabriel’s flock of sheep moving across the countryside; the famous Maiden Castle scene in which Troy impresses Bathsheba with a display of swordsmanship, all crazy zooms and weird jump cuts; misshapen, distorted cows are seen through the eyes of a drunken drayman; and a lovely scene in which the lovesick Bathsheba pursues Troy to the seaside and confronts him on the beach. We don’t hear their impassioned conversation, just see the waves behind them crash on the shore, and the daytrippers pass back and forth around them, sometimes blocking them out of the shot. I like the way the film associates Troy with the cheap and tawdry pleasures of the fair and carnival, while Gabriel is rooted firmly in the rhythms and rituals of farming and shepherding.

If Hardy’s novel is a story about appreciating what you already have, of choosing sense over sensibility, about learning to settle (in both senses of the word), then the selfish 1960s adaptation chafes a little at such convention. There’s a strange claustrophobia to the end, a slight unease as Bathsheba embarks on the comforts of married life with a husband who has professed that he never wishes to let her out of his sight, and, in the clockwork fort that sits in the parlour, a constant reminder of her first love. No, we can never quite get away from the past.

Studiocanal are releasing John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday.


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