Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, David Nicholls adapting the Thomas Hardy novel | Disney Plus and On Demand
I miss Merchant Ivory. There, I’ve said it.
During the heyday of the filmmaking team of Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, they created a brand of literary adaptations that ignited a genre of corset dramas, many of which were terrific. From Howard’s End to Remains Of The Day, from Wings of the Dove to Sense and Sensibility. Quality cinematic tales of repressed, lovelorn Brits.
These movies are much rarer these days. (You might find a review or two here. )
Far From The Madding Crowd is a sweeping romantic melodrama in that tradition, a story of a woman in 1870s Dorset having to decide between three men. And while it won’t trouble a list of classic period pieces, it’s a handsome genre entry.
It’s directed by Danish filmmaker Vinterberg, veteran of the Dogme school whose last film was the white-knuckler The Hunt. He and DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen have definitely seen the 1967 John Schlesinger adaptation of the same novel, the one starring Julie Christie and Terence Stamp. They’ve improved it considerably by making it about 50 minutes shorter, but they can’t top Nic Roeg’s incredible cinematography, so they try to match it, with a few shots lifted directly from the earlier film. It’s all in the effort of beauty, so I can’t fault them for it.
I’ve not read the source material, but I found it interesting that the central character Bathsheba Everdene in this version (the wonderful Carey Mulligan) prioritizes her independence. She “never saw the point of getting married.” That’s in comparison with the ’67 version, where Julie Christie as Bathsheba is much wilder and more impulsive, while insisting on only marrying for love.
That modernizing detail feels right, and it also feels more true to the period, where practicalities and social standing were the thing. Who married for love in 1870?
At the core of this story is this forthright woman who inherits a farm and takes on the challenge of running it. Her three suitors are a shepherd (Matthais Schoenaerts), a wealthy older landowner (Michael Sheen), and a rakish soldier (Tom Sturridge), who has a host of problems that Bathsheba is blind to, with gambling debts and promises made to another young woman of his acquaintance (Juno Temple).
Individually these men appeal to Bathsheba in different ways: One to her heart by being steadfast and kind, one to her head by offering security while also making the potential union feel like an obligation, and one to another part of her anatomy, by being a charismatic, moustachioed rogue in uniform. Do not underestimate the appeal of dazzling swordplay.
And all this against a (mostly) summery pastoral paradise, complete with tall grasses and strong breezes through the trees.
In this summer of killer robots and post-apocalyptic madness, this is a nice bit of counter-programming; an elegant yarn of women and men, sheep and dogs.
Far From The Madding Crowd opens May 15 in Halifax