Sex and the sin­gle heiress

This light­weight but gor­geous ver­sion of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 clas­sic is cer­tainly a film of its time, writes

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - THE TICKET REVIEWS -

Carey Mul­li­gan in Far From the Madding Crowd

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD Di­rected by Thomas Vin­ter­berg. Star­ring Carey Mul­li­gan, Matthias Schoe­naerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Stur­ridge, Juno Tem­ple, Rowan Hed­ley. 12A cert, gen­eral re­lease, 119 min This lat­est adap­ta­tion of Thomas Hardy’s break­through novel was al­ways go­ing to strug­gle be­neath the mighty weight of John Sch­lesinger’s well-re­mem­bered 1967 ver­sion. In one sense, how­ever, Thomas Vin­ter­berg has proved the equal of Sch­lesinger.

Shot in rav­ish­ing Panav­i­sion by Nic Roeg, the ear­lier film was so soaked in the era’s vis­ual aes­thetic – Terence Stamp looked to have bor­rowed his uni­form from Sgt Pep­per – that it be­came an em­blem of the swing­ing ’60s. Vin­ter­berg’s film may not be up front in any fu­ture I Love 2015 TV show, but the cos­tumes and line de­liv­er­ies do stink of cur­rent at­ti­tudes. Keep eyes open for the leather­jerkin thing that Carey Mul­li­gan wears be­fore (I’m guess­ing here) open­ing her or­ganic tofu stand in Port­land.

Mul­li­gan of­fers us a more mod­ern ver­sion of Bathsheba Ever­dene. There is never much sense that the cap­ti­vat­ing farm owner – pro­pelled into power through in­her­i­tance – has any aware­ness of the loom­ing pres­sure to con­form to con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous gen­der norms. Where’s the strug­gle? Bathsheba’s re­laxed con­fi­dence is ev­ery bit as anachro­nis­tic as her gleam­ing teeth.

For all that, this is a lovely look­ing, sweetly scored mid­mar­ket di­ver­sion. Char­lotte Bruus Chris­tensen, who worked with Vin­ter­berg on The Hunt, makes some­thing pain­terly of the gor­geous coun­try­side. Craig Arm­strong al­ter­nates proud El­gar chords with Vaughn Wil­liams ro­man­ti­cism to suit­able syl­van ef­fect.

In­deed, the open­ing half is al­most en­tirely de­li­cious. It is not un­til the sec­ond hour that nig­gles about cast­ing and mis­guided pri­or­i­ties in the adap­ta­tion begin to drag the piece down.

Matthias Schoe­naerts never con­vinces as a man of the English West Coun­try – in­deed, Wes­sex vow­els are con­spic­u­ous by their near to­tal ab­sence – but he has more than enough charisma to act as the moral keystone of the film. Farmer Gabriel Oak is the first of three men to pro­pose to Ms Ever­dene in the course of the film and, though re­buffed, he is the most level-headed through­out.

Mul­li­gan has a softer pres­ence than did Julie Christie in the 1967 in­car­na­tion, but the new film still strug­gles with Hardy’s misog­y­nis­tic dis­dain for women who pre­fer cads in metaphor­i­cal sports cars to nice blokes who bring soup to the el­derly.

The sec­ond nice (although borderline barmy) chap she meets is Michael Sheen’s hu­mour­less, dili­gent Wil­liam Bold­wood. Be­ing the sort of woman Hardy thinks too many women to be, she sends him a Valen­tine card as a joke and trig­gers a po­ten­tially fa­tal ob­ses­sion.

So far, so okay. The film’s great­est prob­lems gather round the ar­rival of dash­ing, fright­ful Sgt Troy. Given that he could hardly be more of a jerk if he were played by the young Jude Law, Troy re­ally needs to send off the same charis­matic sparks Stamp gen­er­ated. Why else would Bathsheba take up with him?

Tom Stur­ridge is a de­cent ac­tor, but his Troy is far too light­weight to con­vince as a cruel force of na­ture. David Ni­cholls’s adap­ta­tion then ex­ac­er­bates the prob­lem by par­ing away the char­ac­ter’s defin­ing scenes from the book’s fi­nal act. We are left with an equiv­o­cally scented ze­phyr rather than the an­ni­hi­lat­ing hu­man tor­nado the story des­per­ately needs.

Still, the film must be ac­counted a mod­est suc­cess. Vin­ter­berg cer­tainly grasps the op­por­tu­nity – al­ways present in Hardy – to sub­li­mate sex­u­al­ity at ev­ery turn. Stur­ridge’s phal­lic sword whips past Mul­li­gan’s tense breast in the story’s most fa­mous episode. She sweats amid leap­ing flames as Schoe­naerts helps her save the har­vest. Even a bout of sheep dip­ping takes on the char­ac­ter of a dis­placed orgy.

What­ever else you might say about this writer, you couldn’t ar­gue that stuff doesn’t hap­pen.

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