If you could raise Thomas Hardy from the dead and ask him which actress was closer to his heroine in “Far From the Madding Crowd” – Carey Mulligan who stars in the new one or Julie Christie who starred in John Schlesinger’s 1967 version – I’d be willing to bet that he’d find Mulligan a lot closer to what he had in mind.
Which is exactly why I greatly prefer Christie.
Christie was a movie star – a gorgeous woman you couldn’t take your eyes off if you tried. She was a good actress, too, but this is a story of a rural heiress who has three entirely different kinds of men working very hard to get her to marry them.
You could believe that Christie would be a headstrong woman who would have an aristocracy of 1967 British film actors wanting her – Peter Finch, Alan Bates and Terence Stamp.
Mulligan is a beautiful woman, to be sure, but everything about her seems smaller and tidier than Christie.
But then so is everything about this new 2015 version of Hardy’s novel about the courting of Bathsheba Everdene (if her last name sounds familiar from tentpole movie franchises in the 21st century try this: spell it differently and you’ve got the last name of Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games” movies. Her name was very much the author’s tribute to Hardy).
Schlesinger’s movie was 168 minutes long, as a big literary adaptation in the “Zhivago” era was supposed to be. This new one by a Danish director working in English is a neat and tidy 119 minutes.
Its cast, besides Mulligan, is workmanlike – Matthias Schoenarts plays stolid Gabriel Oak, whom Bathsheba rejects but he manages her farm anyway; Michael Sheen plays William Boldwood, the wealthy neighboring landowner whom she toys with and who courts her with everything he’s got (which is considerable); and Tom Sturridge plays Sergeant Francis Troy, the rakish, womanizing soldier who ultimately wins her hand and then doesn’t know what to do with it.
Bad news results for almost everyone in the story, for a while.
Compared to Schlesinger’s bunch, this is a solid B team.
It never surprises readers of Hardy when his novels are made into movies. He’s a very visual writer. His descriptions are among the great descriptions in 19th century English literature.
When Henry James – a Hardy contemporary who has been a somewhat shocking success in film adaptations, courtesy of James Ivory, Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – reviewed “Madding” in 1874, he said: “Mr. Hardy describes nature with a great deal of felicity and is evidently very much at home with rural phenomena.”
He also said the book “has a fatal lack of magic … [it] is very long but his subject is very short and simple.”
And that’s exactly why the 168-minute Schlesinger/Christie A-team version is so much better than this neat, tidy epic with its own notable “lack of magic.” Schlesinger’s movie was significantly gorgeous to look at; it was photographed by the remarkable cinematographer and director Nicolas Roeg.
This is very pretty, to be sure, but there’s little majesty. And when this one gets to the hard-won ending that readers and audiences all want, it isn’t nearly as large and satisfying as it was in 1967 when there was so much more movie to see to get there.
So what’s better in this new 21st century version? Well, there is something. James, back in 1874, wrote “we cannot say that we either understand or like Bathsheba. She is a young lady of the inconsequential, wilful, nettlesome type … she remains alternately vague and coarse and seems always artificial … Everything human in the book strikes us as factitious and insubstantial; the only things we believe in are the sheep and the dogs.”
In a post-feminist 21st century world, Bathsheba’s vehement awkwardness and romantic errancy and confusion seem quite believable indeed.
Hardy’s novel had to wait for our century to have filmmakers and performers to understand its confusions.
Sorry. I liked it better in 1967 when it was a “very long” but luxuriant movie about a subject that was “very short and simple.”
FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenarts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Running time: 119 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for some sex, nudity and violence.
The Lowdown: Newest film version of Thomas Hardy’s novel about a headstrong heiress pursued by three men of different character.