Love and violence in Thomas Hardy’s England

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Far From the Madding Crowd (M). Director: Thomas Vinterberg. Starring: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge, Michael Sheen. 118 minutes

A key moment in Thomas Hardy's novel Far From the Madding Crowd occurs when frugal young sheep farmer Gabriel loses his entire flock due to the errant behaviour of an inexperienced dog. In a new film adaptation of the novel, Danish filmmaker Vinterberg imbues this moment with a mythic aura. Awoken by the animal ruckus beyond his walls, Gabriel (Schoenaerts) arrives at the cliff's edge in the predawn half-light to see the fresh corpses strewn on the beach below.

Vinterberg, a pioneer of the avant-garde Dogme 95 movement, is a fine filmmaker, able to draw emotionally complex performances out of his actors, and compose visual sequences that are almost mystical in their evoked sense of awe of the natural world. These sensibilities made his previous film, 2012's The Hunt — a relatively straightforward story about the ordeal of a schoolteacher who is wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a student — into a dense and difficult fable.

They are the great strengths of Far From the Madding Crowd, too, which is on the face of it a fairly pedestrian adaptation of an often-adapted novel, but is elevated by sequences like that described above, and others that in Vinterberg's hands become equally portentous or potent: one that depicts a late-night scramble to shield massive haystacks from a coming storm; another that cross-cuts between a young bride arriving at one church while her groom-to-be waits at the altar of another.

At the heart of Hardy's story is Bathsheba, a proud and independent young shepherd and object of Gabriel's affection, whose fortunes change inversely to Gabriel's; as he faces financial ruin after the death of his flock, she comes into an inheritance and becomes the new proprietor of her late uncle's farm. Mulligan, a wonderful actress, combines in her portrayal of Bathsheba both headstrongness and vulnerability. Her performance, like Vinterberg's direction, is magnetic.

In addition to Gabriel, who by chance comes into her employ, Bathsheba acquires two more suitors: prosperous and socially awkward bachelor William Boldwood (Sheen) and cocky young sergeant Frank Troy (Sturridge). Much of the tension in the story according to Vinterberg accumulates in the interstices of this masculine triangle, with Bathsheba at its fraught centre tyring to attain romantic fulfilment while also maintaining her closely guarded independence.

English literary journalist Lucasta Miller noted that Hardy's title, with 'madding' taken to mean 'frenzied', is an ironic nod to idyllic perceptions of rural life; Hardy 'disrupts the idyll, and not just by introducing the sound and fury of an extreme plot … he is out to subvert his readers' complacency'. Vinterberg captures this spirit, at least. The stunning rural landscapes of his film provide a sublime stage for violence both physical and emotional. It is memorable and deeply affecting viewing.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy, Thomas Vinterberg, Carey Mulligan

 

 

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Existing comments

My good friend and I are going to see this movie tomorrow. Both of us are old enough to recall Julie Christie as Bathsheba! Thanks for the review.
Pam | 15 July 2015


Thanks Tim. I enjoyed the film and appreciate it even more now having read your review.
Anne | 16 July 2015


A very apt review for a splendid film rendition of Hardy's classic story.
John Kelly | 16 July 2015


Likewise. I loved the movie, confirmed by this good review.
tony kevin | 16 July 2015


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