Not Far From the Middling Crowd

16 May 2015

The BBC and Thomas Vinterberg’s prettified adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel Far From the Madding Crowd fails to generate a sexual spark – and what happened to all the Grim?

There are few Victorian-era writers who feel as closely attuned to our own times as Thomas Hardy. His novels horrified Victorian society with their grim depictions of vulnerable working class men and women, struggling and mostly failing in a cruel and indifferent world. His embattled working class characters – Tess, Gabriel, Bathsheba, Jude, Sue Brideshead – are adrift in the shifting sands of Victorian society, wanting more than life has offered them but lacking the means and opportunity to better themselves. Hardy’s world was one of fallen idols and an absence of comforting doctrine: his is an apparently godless universe, where nature is indifferent, the ways of the old agrarian world are fading and where the poor and vulnerable get spat out by a repressive and hypocritical society.

Though he achieved success with his novels – the success of Far From the Madding Crowd was sufficient for him to give up architecture and write full time – his work was loudly and vociferously criticised. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, his sympathetic portrayal of a rape victim created outrage. Jude the Obscure created even more controversy, with its unorthodox take on marriage, sex and religion. Called “Jude the Obscene” by one reviewer, bit was sold by booksellers in brown paper bags, and the Bishop of Wakefield claimed to have burned his copy in disgust.

It’s no wonder, then, that it took until the 20th century for Hardy’s work and bracingly grim perspective to be fully celebrated. We now see Hardy as ahead of his time, an astute critic of the social and sexual hypocrisies of his age, and a prophet for our own godless and cynical age.

An old lecturer of mine once described reading Hardy as being “as much fun as putting your head face down in a bucket of shit for two hours”, which wasn’t entirely meant as an insult. Though laughs are thin on the ground, there’s something bracing about Hardy’s vision – his clear-sightedness, his feel for the severe beauty of the Sussex landscape, his compassion for the poor and vulnerable, and his deep identification with his characters’ desire to find happiness. He’s also given us some of the most striking female characters in literature: complex, conflicted women who rail against the sexual double standards of their age and who are invariably punished for their transgressions. Some feminist critics have accused him of overdoing it on the romantic fatalism – like Lars von Trier, the Danish filmmaker, Hardy does seem obsessed with female suffering – but he’s to be commended for not sugar-coating the life of a working-class woman.

For a writer so downbeat and depressing, Hardy’s work makes for surprisingly good cinema. John Schlesinger made a wonderful, leisurely version of Far From the Madding Crowd in 1967, stunningly filmed by Nic Roeg and starring the rapturously beautiful trio of Julie Christie, Alan Bates and Terrence Stamp. Roman Polanski made a visually striking adaptation of Tess in 1981, starring his then-child bride Nastassja Kinski. Both films were interesting departures for filmmakers best known for modern, emotionally corrosive work – both feature a stately, almost sluggish pace, gorgeous old-school David Lean-like cinematography and a visible pleasure in recreating the look of 19th century rural England. Both Schlesinger and Polanski were experts at mining the simmering sexuality of Hardy’s heroines: in both films, sexuality becomes the animus that drives the narrative as well as the destructive force that nearly destroys it.

Hardy got a full going over in the late 1990s and 2000s by the English filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, who made well-received versions of The Mayor of Casterbridge (filmed as The Claim) and Jude, and relocated the story of Tess to caste-bound India to stunning effect in Trishna. Winterbottom’s up-close-and-personal film style, with hand-held camera work and a preference for natural lighting, was the perfect cinematic fit for Hardy’s down-at-heel and melancholy stories. Though all but Trishna were filmed as period pieces, it’s striking how modern Hardy’s sensibility feels in the various films. Some of the social restrictions that Hardy’s characters fought against – particularly the dominance of the church – no longer grip us so strongly, but the films of Hardy’s novels still resonate for our times in their chronicling of social exclusion, class envy and the cruel indifference of capitalism.

It was with a vague sense of weariness that I settled in to watch BBC Films’ new version of Far From the Madding Crowd, directed by Thomas Vinterberg (the latest of a series of Scandinavian directors invited to apply some Nordic Noir to very English stories). It’s fair to say that it’s due a remake – the Schlesinger version, brilliant though it was, is nearly 50 years old – and its strong female lead and complicated romantic plot suggests that it would register well with modern audiences.

For reasons best known to them, the BBC asked novelist David Nicholls to write the screenplay. Nicholls had a massive success a few years ago with One Day, a soapy boy-meets-girl romance that’s told from both the male and female points of view. I loathed the book and took as many opportunities as I could to tell strangers reading it on the Tube that the female character gets hit by a truck at the eleventh hour. Sadly, I couldn’t distract their interest, and it became a successful but very feeble Nice English Film a few years later.

A suffocating sense of Nice Englishness pervades the new Madding Crowd, a sombre and often tragic melodrama about a young heiress who attracts the attention of a loveable rogue, a respectable sociopath and a loyal farmhand. Unusually for a Hardy novel, it has a happy ending, though he rachets up the grim factor with at least one dead baby and a fallen woman who dies on her way to the workhouse.

From the outset, VInterberg’s film feels more a Jane Austen adaptation or an episode of Downton Abbey than anything dreamed up by Hardy. It looks exquisitely beautiful throughout – which is to say, not terribly true to life, and probably with an eye on the American film market, which likes its English dramas easy on the eye and not too challenging. The result is a not unenjoyable two hours which feels like much less hard work than slogging through the novel at school – which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Anyone casting Far From the Madding Crowd has the added problem of attempting to find actors who can convincingly own roles played by the gorgeous and god-like Christie, Bates and Stamp. One of my biggest bugbears with modern films, especially English films, is the eunuch-like lack of sex appeal of modern actors – at least the ones who are cast in period films. The boys are invariably cut from the same public school uniform cloth – high cheekbones, floppy hair, cut-glass diction and a penchant for comfortable tweeds, with little in the way of old school male sexuality. The girls follow a similarly fey template: high cheekbones, big cow like eyes, winsome expressions, voices like little girls and a penchant for tight corsets and not smudging their make-up. Call me Camille Paglia, but I miss the pansexual gods and goddesses of 1950s and 1960s cinema, who owned their close ups and seduced the audience with their eyes.

Sadly, the 2015 cast can’t hold a candle to their predecessors. As Bathsheba, Carey Mulligan is sprightly and winsome, brushing locks of hair out of her eyes adorably while the angles of her pretty face catch the rays of late summer sunshine. As an actor, she hits all the marks required of her – she smiles and grimaces and holds her head between her hands to signal distress. She trembles before the camera like a lamb waiting for the farmer’s knife, her big brown eyes seem perpetually on the verge of tears. Despite all that tremulousness, Mulligan seems strangely unmoored in the piece – physically there’s little about her that suggests a farm-raised countrywoman, and she never really connects with her character’s emotional turmoil. Despite the choice of three suitors, she’s unable to raise a sexual spark above more than a match flame.

The actors playing Bathsheba’s suitors are also a mixed bag. Boldwood, the twisted bachelor neighbour who tries to win her hand, is played by Michael Sheen, a solid actor who is, unfortunately, near impossible to watch without recalling his caricatures of Tony Blair and Kenneth Williams. Sheen gives a solid and somewhat strenuous performance, manfully repressing his character’s passion but never hitting his tragic depths. Sergeant Troy, the dashing soldier who captures Bathsheba’s lust and her fortune, is played by Tom Sturridge, in the film’s most disappointing performance. Sturridge is as pretty as the role demands, with a fine set of moustaches, but he seems tiny and mouse-like in the role, petulant and internal when he should be larger than life and bursting with carnal knowledge. Sturridge does his best to give Troy some emotional depth, but he’s never as much of a shit as he needs to be to serve the story. It’s a relief when he finally strips off his clothes (no bum showing, mind you) and swims out to sea.

The film’s most interesting performance is from Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays Gabriel Oak as a soulful hunk straight from a Barbara Cartland novel. Vinterberg films Schoenaerts as a rustic superman, posing heroically while herding his sheep, with his boxer’s muscles straining through his thick-weave muslin peasant blouses. It’s miles away from Hardy’s quiet, bookish Gabriel, but he works as a romantic hero and supplies the film with its sole breath of sexual energy. While the other actors move and speak as if they were acting in a play, Schoenaerts gives the sense of a man at one with physical work and hard times, who feels rather than just emotes his character’s passions.

Nicholls’ screenplay does a fair job of compressing Hardy’s narrative into two hours: every beat is struck dutifully, like a funeral bell, and with as little joy or creativity. Strangely, it felt like a longer and tougher watch than Schlesinger’s slower and more leisurely version, which was nearly an hour longer. It trips along pleasantly enough – even the dead baby fails to ruffle the film’s immaculate visual style – until Bathsheba finally realises that the Muscles from Brussels is her man. At last we reach the happy ending that the film has been longing for all along, which feels both disappointing and undeserved.

The best thing I can say about this bland, fatuous film is that it may introduce a new generation of viewers to Hardy’s novel (or the Schlesinger film), where they will find a darker and much more satisfying experience. As it is, it’s an honourable failure, and another victim of the Nice Englishness that seems to infect most adaptations of historical novels. For a truer rendering of Hardy’s Life Is Grim But Beautiful vision, I’d highly recommend the first series of ITV’s TV serial Broadchurch, set on the Sussex coast and starring the great David Tennant as a melancholy policeman named – who else? – Tom Hardy. Fear not, Mr Hardy – your legacy isn’t completely dead.

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