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Movie Reviews

Close to the madding crowd

Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdeen and Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Troy in Far from the Madding Crowd. Photo: by Alex Bailey. © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

There’s something extremely attractive about the tried and true when contemporary movie companies are deciding to green-light projects. As far as the suits are concerned, the whole proof-of-concept thing makes best-selling novels, vintage TV series, hot graphic novels, long-running superhero franchises, and beloved old movies the most palpable properties for investment and production. And timeless material in the public domain — fables, folk tales, the literature classics, religious tracts, and so forth — doesn’t require compensating the original creator. To be fair, this gambit can bear tasty fruit.

So it’s no surprise that we have a new movie version of Thomas Hardy’s beloved, somewhat melodramatic 1874 novel, Far from the Madding Crowd — the tale of Bathsheba Everdene, an independent woman of the Victorian era, her various suitors, and their changing fortunes. Insightful, elegantly written and yes, a wee bit soap operatic, it’s a natural for the big-screen treatment. And even more than a century after it was written, it has some pertinent things to say about love, duty, gender roles, and determination in the face of challenges.

For the record, this is the latest cinematic take on the material to attempt a faithful adaptation of the book. The first was a British silent film made in 1915, although the 1967 interpretation directed by John Schlesinger is far more renowned, starring a spiffy and accomplished cast led by Julie Christie as Bathsheba and Alan Bates, Terence Stamp, and Peter Finch as the men in her life. Schlesinger’s rendering wasn’t a big hit in the United States, but it was well received in its country of origin, Great Britain, and scored various awards and nominations when it was first released. In retrospect, it may have been a little too dry and stately for mass appeal.

In any event, a new Far from the Madding Crowd, with its strong-minded and self-sufficient heroine, is a good fit for the 21st century marketplace, despite being a period piece set in the era of the novel. Our heroine’s complications fuel the story’s engine. After inheriting a farm in England’s sprawling West Country, willful bachelorette Bathsheba is determined to make it as the head of her household in a male-dominated society. It ain’t easy, as the mores of the time and the power of nature itself toss roadblocks her way.

A FORMIDABLE CAST

Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration) is blessed with a savvy, bright-eyed, endearing, yet sturdy Bathsheba in the form of Carey Mulligan — an actress who has fully matured past her adorable ingénue phase and brings pluck, passion, and an honorable demeanor to the central role. She’s near irresistible on camera. Furthermore, Mulligan is in fine company when it comes to her co-stars.

Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts is rough hewn and steadfast as simple, noble sheep farmer Gabriel Oaks who loves Bathsheba and cannot match her assets and marry her after he encounters a run of bad luck, but dedicates himself to her. Michael Sheen delivers his typically spot-on performance as William Boldwood, Bathsheba’s wealthy, decent, socially awkward neighbor — an older man whose marriage proposal comes off as less than enticing. And Tom Sturridge is the swaggering, opportunistic, and handsome soldier with a checkered past, Sergeant Troy, who manages to dazzle and entice Bathsheba, regardless of her wary nature.

It’s worth a ticket just to see Mulligan going toe-to-toe with Sheen and matching the inevitable emotional complexity of his acting. They’re two standouts among the ongoing flow of exceptional actors from the U.K., and they do not disappoint here. But Mulligan also brings it opposite Schoenaerts and, especially, Sturridge’s ne’r-do-well as his conniving, callow side surfaces.

How will this love rectangle untangle? Who, if anyone, shall win her hand? Will Bathsheba make it as a landowner and farmer? All of these questions are answered in good time with a diligent, loving, and respectful approach that honors the source and, as far as the cinematography goes, conjures up an appropriately rural, murky, wind-swept setting.

Far from the Madding Crowd opens May 1 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.

THE VIDEO OPTION

My favorite cinematic creation inspired by Hardy’s darkly romantic fiction is actually one step and decades removed from the original tome. Tamara Drewe, directed by Stephen Frears of Dangerous Liaisons and My Beautiful Launderette fame, is a 2010 charmer based on a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, which in turn was based on Far from the Madding Crowd.

The differences? Tamara Drewe is set in modern times, and, even if its main characters, plot, and socially astute sensibilities are reflections of those conjured by Hardy, it’s as much a satirical comedy as a tale of a feisty woman facing romantic trials. Bathsheba is reimagined as London newspaper columnist Tamara (Gemma Arterton) who inherits and returns to her late parents’ rustic home with plans to sell it. She reconnects with her girlhood crush, a farmhand (Luke Evans) who serves as this film’s Gabriel; is hit on by its Boldwood, an older, married best-selling novelist (Roger Allam) who’s running a nearby writers’ retreat with his wife; and falls for a latter-day equivalent to the dashing Sergeant Troy, a rock drummer (Dominic Cooper) with voracious appetites and questionable morals. Its affection for its protagonist and her struggles and its blithe skewering of human foibles would probably please Hardy if he were around to see Tamara Drewe. For whatever reason, it received next to no play in U.S. theaters. No matter. Today, we can watch it via a variety of platforms: DVD, VOD, and others. You’d be wise to seek it out.

It’s a treat.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio's David Feldman Show and Thom Hartmann Show and on Michael Snyder's Culture Blast, available online at GABnet.net and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster

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