Perhaps it's too easy to find in Thomas Hardy's fourth novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, a rebuke to Jane Austen's chronicles of courtship - splendid women absorbed in the puerilities of landing suitable husbands. Hardy's story begins with an independent and courageous young woman, with the usual fantastic Hardy name of Bathsheba Everdene, resisting the proposals of three stalwart men and ends with her eventually marrying all three. Hardy's story ends with one of the men dead (interestingly, the only one who has had sex with Bathsheba), and a second as good as dead - he will hang for the murder of the first. The man she ends up with, a rather stolid shepherd named Gabriel Oak (!), was the first to propose, but it's safe to suppose that she doesn't love him. If Bathsheba can be pinned down to loving any of them, it was the first, the one who seduced her.
After watching the latest of four film adaptations of Hardy's novel, it's tempting to think, comparing it to the expensive and expansive first adaptation, from 1967, "What a falling off was there." Recalling that film, directed by John Schlesinger and photographed by Nicolas Roeg, so many scenes stand out: the sheep dog driving Gabriel Oak's flock off a cliff, Sergeant Troy demonstrating his swordsmanship to Bathsheba, Troy breaking open the coffin of Fanny Robin, the gothic church's rain spout disinterring Fanny's grave, Boldwood's wedding party interrupted. But the simple fact that one recalls only scenes from Schlesinger's film exposes its essential weakness. It isn't a cohesive - or even a coherent - work. Top-heavy with three great actors, Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Terence Stamp, perfectly cast, they appear to revolve in the memory around a beautiful nullity - Julie Christie, whose stardom was one of the most baffling flukes of the 1960s. Why she was never expected to act by David Lean and Schlesinger (who was her lover for awhile), is one of film history's greatest mysteries. But the technicolor imagery summoned up by Roeg, who would shortly embark on his own meandering career as director, caught fleeting glimpses of Hardy's fatalistic Wessex tale. Hardy belived so overwhelmingly in the inevitability of disappointment (especially in love) and grief that he could get away with devices like coincidence and foreshadowing, all of it to establish his sense of a powerful Fate ruling the lives of his characters.
In the new movie, there is a much airier feeling, a particularization of detail that has something other than the plot to justify it. The Danish director, Thomas Vinterberg, shows us how people lived in Victorian Dorsetshire, the English county that Hardy redubbed Wessex. The costumes are marvelously explicit. (When I reaquainted myself with the Schlesinger version twenty-five years ago when I was in the Navy, and Terence Stamp walked on in all his dragooned glory, I said, "Now that's a uniform!" A friend corrected me: "No. That's a costume.") The actors don't behave as if they're wearing costumes, but their everyday clothes, which is a subtle but marvelous touch.
Carey Mulligan heads the cast, as she should - since it's Bathsheba's story to tell. She provides this version with a much sturdier center, with her three male swains (Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, and Tom Sturridge) providing their parts with supporting substance. But how I missed Bates, Finch, and Stamp in those roles! There are no English actors around today who could properly replace them. Mulligan carries the film well, even if she isn't as superficially toothsome as Julie Christie was in 1967. Vernon Young was right, though, when he pointed out that Christie missed her true calling as a flight attendant (he used the quaint term "stewardess"). Mulligan breathes life, if not fire, into Bathsheba, the same life that Hardy gave her on the printed page.
One other dimension missing from Vinterberg's film is the music, an absence that would've been welcome since it's so overused in today's films. Craig Armstrong composed a somewhat murky score for the film, along with a quasi-English folk song sung by Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen. But Richard Rodney Bennett supplied the Schlesinger film with a score worthy of Ralph Vaughan Williams, even if the film wasn't quite worthy of it. Vinterberg's choice of the Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen replaced Nicolas Roeg's lugubrious atmospherics with sunny, sharp images in keeping, perhaps, with the Dogme dogma of avoiding photographic effects (filters, underexposure, artificial lighting, etc.). It's an improvement, I think, on the Turneresque look of too many Hardy adaptations.
In keeping with the latest literary adaptations, the new Far from the Madding Crowd is just shy of two hours, which is a serious short-shrifting of the novel's density. The Schlesinger version was a hefty 169 minutes, but few audiences today have the patience for such long-hauls. Which means, of course, that it isn't just their loss but ours, dear reader. Vinterberg's film only managed to scrape in $30.2M worldwide. This time the madding crowd stayed away.