By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
“The only reason we came to see it was because my wife read it in high school.”
Thus spake, within earshot of my wife, a disgruntled viewer unimpressed with the dose of literary culture he had just been so eloquently dealt by director Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd.” Exiting the theater, he further disparaged the experience, informing how the author might have dispensed with the tale’s love quadrangle and cut to the chase, as it were, saving the lead from all the fuss of having to decide which of her three, socially disparate suitors she would choose. In other words, delete the plot.
Doubtless the good fellow would have preferred something a bit more manly. Which leads me to surmise that his wife, who might have perhaps been apt subject for a novel of manners herself if she had lived during the Gilded Age, will repay his tolerance and generosity by accompanying him next week to something with a more acceptable amount of murder and mayhem.
Alas, unlike the foreseeably obligated spouse, I didn’t read the British masterpiece in high school, the title either missing from Mr. Dave Stamelman’s venerable reading list, or unfortunately overlooked. So call me either a sissy, social climber or fop for making amends by virtue of the literary pilgrimage the exquisitely filmed picture afforded.
Of course none of this is to say that there is no violence, outlandish betrayal or sinister obsessions in this outwardly quiet, upper crust stuff. It’s really just a matter of delivery, art mirroring the manner and deportment of the times. Back then they said it with a knowing glance, a caustically dangerous insinuation instead of a superhero’s crashing blow. Scratch the genteel patina of the era in question’s belles-lettres and the discontent is there for the examining—millennia of class domination defying what we see as our natural right to happiness.
Writers like Thomas Hardy, George Eliot and others, generally categorized as Victorian realists, provided for public consumption an encryption of the emotions stirring beneath the rigid surface of propriety. Aside from their pure entertainment value, these now classic works offered readers catharsis, a knowing nod of empathy, and an artistically whispered bit of encouragement, tacitly informing the socially subjugated that they are not alone in their feelings.
So it only makes sense that Bathsheba Everdene, while largely respectful of the conventions that rule her world in the rural community surrounding Dorset, England, circa 1870, has little doubt that she can rise above caste and meagre financial circumstances. Splendidly portrayed by Carey Mulligan, the winsome and slight but innately tough gal is representative of everything from free will to budding ancestor of the Women’s Lib Movement. In short, she’s not going to kowtow to any man, even if it would mean greater comforts and improving her station. No sir, not her.
I embarrassedly admit an enthusiastic, avuncular interest in Bathsheba’s fortunes as she strove to make the best choice among the three gentleman callers that try to win her charms, and shamelessly agonized whenever the impulses of romance caused the spunky lass a lapse of judgement. Though a Ms. before her time, the pretty pragmatist is not impervious to that which can only be described or explained by poetry, if at all.
This is where Mr. Hardy’s writing, faithfully adapted for the screen by David Nicholls, trenchantly mines and assays all those subliminal and deep-seated emotions that comprise the repressive sociology littérateurs just love rummaging through and dissecting. Of course what’s old is new and vice versa. Beneath what initially may seem like fuddy-duddy prattle to young viewers shouts the realities of their own generation: Talent is nice, but money and class talk. We can only hope that virtue and hard work prevail. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to be good looking, too.
Filling that bill with compelling distraction as Bathsheba tries to make her way as mistress of a deteriorated farm she inherits, are, Michael Sheen as William Boldwood, the respected, somewhat older land baron next door; Tom Sturridge as the handsomely seductive Sergeant Francis Troy; and Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak, the rustic shepherd who kicks things off with a marriage proposal at the very beginning of the story. ‘Oh, choose wisely, dear Bathsheba,’ we beseechingly cheer.
It doesn’t seem like much of a plot. But therein lies its beauty…a thoughtful, subtly woven meditation on the business of being human, with a few good twists. It speaks respectfully to the soul. Hence it is ironic that, as perceptive as Mr. Hardy was, he could have no idea that his story would one day provide discriminating moviegoers with a reprieve “Far From the Madding Crowd” of f/x-inundating, $100 million blockbusters that insult rather than celebrate our intelligence.
“Far From the Madding Crowd,” rated PG-13, is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release directed by Thomas Vinterberg and stars Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts and Michael Sheen. Running time: 119 minutes