“They spoke very little of their mutual feelings: pretty phrases and warm attentions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends.” And indeed, Thomas Vinterberg’s screen adaptation of the classic Thomas Hardy love story Far From the Madding Crowd (screenplay by David Nicholls) leaves you with the sensation that less is undeniably more.
Despite precedent successes, Vinterberg’s film quickly takes on a life of its own and more sumptuously rekindles the agonies and joys of a full circle romance that have largely been relegated until now. Having neither read nor watched Far From the Madding Crowd, Vinterberg reinterprets the quintessential English epic through refreshing new lenses and is poised to ignite a renaissance of period drama adaptations since Pride and Prejudice.
Carey Mulligan (An Education; Never Let Me Go; The Great Gatsby) is a delight to behold as our headstrong, independent heroine, Bathsheba Everdene. The film eloquently traverses between the quotidian humdrum of farming and the softer sides of her romance with three distinct suitors: Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the start-up farmer whom asks for her hand when she was a mere unknown; William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), the established farmer/neighbour whom offers protection and shelter; and Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), the rakish sergeant and modern-day womaniser whom offers little more than a nuisance.
When a reversal of fortune places Bathsheba on a pedestal and Oak at her feet, she quickly banishes the thought of him as an eligible suitor (“I rather liked him, but it’s impossible now”), whereupon her attention is redirected to Boldwood and Troy. Herein lies the foibles of women of her era (and perhaps equally befitting of ours), as a woman of such competence in worldly affairs should display such facetiousness, impetuosity and fallibility with respect to matters of the heart. When Bathsheba soon capitulates to Troy’s lavish advances, we realise with a heavy sigh that a woman’s vanity and inconstancy again takes centre stage (note her contemporaries Dorothea Brooke, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina).
The characterisation of Oak as the humble shepherd and stalwart friend, confidante and protector of a feisty Bathsheba is very much central to this film. The emotional struggles at the epicentre of Vinterberg’s characterisation of Oak is perfectly moulded for a man as Schoenaerts, whom emanates such an innate blend of strength and vulnerability to stamp the role as his own. We also have the added pleasure of bearing witness to a Schoenaerts who is able to fully dispel the image of a mere physical brute that had mercilessly been branded upon him in prior appearances (Bullhead; The Loft; Rust and Bone).
Oak’s vulnerability is aptly exposed when, in a moment of epiphany for our protagonist towards the end of her romantic delusion – and as she pours out to her heart’s content the error of her ways – Oak could muster no more than simply: “Go to bed, I’ll finish it on my own”. Hardy’s readers would have been better enlightened as to the extent of his turmoil at this time, as Oak was left alone to ponder upon “the contradictoriness of that feminine heart which had caused her to speak more warmly to him to-night than she ever had done whilst unmarried and free to speak as warmly as she chose”.
Underneath his stoic veneer and tormented as he is by the flood of confidences not only from his beloved Bathsheba, but also from honourable rival Boldwood, Oak ultimately concedes to both: “you’re asking the wrong man”. Albeit under a different context and different line of questioning, the answer might as well have been the same.
The sensationally melancholy tone which pervades much of the film is captured honestly and simply, without much of the fanfare and dramatisation of its predecessors. In short, this is largely attributable to the sheer screen presence of its main characters against a distinct landscape, and in particular, that of Oak. The camera serendipitously seeks out the surety of Oak’s gaze as one would seek out the brightest jewel in the crown. I, for one, am a firm believer that the eye can hold a fine soliloquy as well as the lips, and Schoenaert’s stellar performance is perfect vindication of this, such that we are moved to grieve over his grievances and ache over his stoicism. (As a relative newcomer, Schoenaerts will set many hearts in Hollywood aflutter with his rendition of Oak, of this I have no doubt).
In the end, it is only at the threat of stark losses (even the inalienable right of hitherto unrequited love from Oak) that Bathsheba manages to finally arrest her senses. To her credit, arrest them she does, and in typical Bathsheba fashion she entreats: “Well, you must not go! … I forbid you”. Strangely, I was grief-stricken at this happy ending, so overcome was I at the prospect of a loss so desolate as a lifetime missed; a loss unrivalled even by the destitute circumstances befalling our respected Boldwood. (This prompted me to rationalise a more existential question of whether the loss of love is truly so great a loss to bear as the loss of freedom and livelihood, however that will be food for thought for another day, perhaps).
To say the latest Far From the Madding Crowd is purely an ode to feminism and independence is to sell it short of its original mark. Vinterberg’s portrayal is one of companionship: a companionship which transcends all sense of place and time; a companionship which is unreserved and yet as unobtrusive as independence itself. In this regard, Mulligan and Schoenaerts have been superbly cast and sweetly juxtaposed; two stars shining bright along the road to symbiotic bliss, where all else are mere trifles in their trail.
Rewatchability Index: 5/5. The writer has watched the film on three separate occasions since first viewing on 11 July 2015 (Dendy Cinemas, Newtown), followed by 17 July (Dendy Cinemas, Circular Quay) and 19 July (Hoyts Mandarin Centre, Chatswood).
Bathsheba: This is your land. I’m trespassing.
Oak: You’re welcome here.
* * * * *
Oak: Miss Everdene, I wanted to ask… would you like to marry me?
Bathsheba: Mr Oak, I don’t want a husband… If I ever were to marry, I’d want someone to tame me, and you’d never be able to do it.
* * * * *
Bathsheba: Well, what is your opinion?
Oak: That you’re greatly to blame for playing pranks on a man like Mr Boldwood. Your actions were unworthy of you.
Bathsheba: Unworthy? And may I ask where my unworthiness lies? In rejecting you perhaps?
Oak: I have long given up thinking of that, or wishing it either.
* * * * *
Oak: I’m not such a fool as to imagine that I might still stand a chance now that you are so above me, but don’t suppose I’m content to stay a nobody all my life. One day I will leave you, you can be sure of that. But for now, I care for you too much to see you go to ruin because of him, so if you don’t mind, I’ll stay by your side.
* * * * *
Bathsheba: Gabriel, I have been a fool… He told me about another woman, a woman more beautiful that he loved before, and I couldn’t bear it. So somewhere between jealousy and distraction I married him!
* * * * *
Boldwood: I am a middle-aged man, willing to protect you for the rest of your life… I’m offering you shelter, comfort, a safe harbour, as my wife. You must at least admire my persistence?
Bathsheba: I do.
Boldwood: And like me?
Boldwood: And respect me?
Bathsheba: Yes. Very much.
Boldwood: Which is it? Like or respect?
Bathsheba: It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language chiefly made by men to express theirs.
Boldwood: If you worry about a lack of passion on your part, a lack of desire, if you worry about marrying me merely out of guilt, and pity and compromise, well, I don’t mind!
* * * * *
Boldwood: I wanted to tell you in advance, Gabriel, because I believe I know your secret. I’ve seen you together, the way you speak to her, watch her and look after her. And I know her profound affections for you. You’ve behaved like a man, and as the successful rival – successful through your kindness – I wish to tell you, I am profoundly grateful.
* * * * *
Bathsheba: You’ll think I’m strange, but I’ve been worried. Have I offended you somehow?
Oak: No, not at all.
Bathsheba: Is it money? I’ll pay you whatever you want.
Oak: I don’t need money now.
Bathsheba: A formal partnership then?
Oak: Nor a partnership. The farm belongs to you alone, it is the finest farm for miles around.
Bathsheba: Then why else are you leaving?
Oak: I said I’d leave you one day.
Bathsheba: Well, you must not go.
Oak: You forbid me?
Bathsheba: Yes, if you like, I forbid you… We have been through so much together. Wasn’t I your first sweetheart? Weren’t you mine? And now I’d have to go on without you.
Oak: If I knew, if I knew that you would let me love you and marry you –
Bathsheba: But you will never know.
Oak: Why not?
Bathsheba: Because you never ask!
Oak: Would you say “no” again?
Bathsheba: I don’t know. Probably… So why don’t you, ask me? Ask me. Ask me, Gabriel?
For a copy of the screenplay – download from below link: