Sunday, May 15, 2016

Our Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman -- Thomas Hardy: Far From the Madding Crowd, streaming on HBO

According to novelist Thomas Hardy, there were always badly matched marriage partners, thwarted happiness, and suffering in lovely rural Wessex, (a fictional county in South West England) because Victorian society was that stifling. Hardy (1840-1928) used his rural tales to show the tragic effects that social constraints had on individuals especially regarding marriage and social mobility.

The dictionary defines "madding" as 'frenzied' or 'maddening'. Thus the title infers a rural setting layered with generations who have worked the land (sowing, harvesting, lambing, bee-hiving, etc.) may seem immune from the impurities of city life; but no, making the opposite point to Tolstoy's in Anna Karenina, life in the sticks was as perverse and misery-making as life in the city. The novel of Bathsheba Everdene and her 3 suitors was disconcerting in the day (1874) -- saturated as it was with modern erotic overtones and misery, leading to Hardy's ironic title. However, this tale, unlike Hardy novels to follow, does offer up a conventional happy ending. If this is your one shot at Hardy, enjoy, but for comparison, see the film of Hardy's Woodlanders (1997) with Rufus Sewell streaming on Netflix.

Thomas Vinterberg (above) emerged as a Danish film director: a handsome "precocious, brilliant brat," wrote Guardian reviewer, Andrew Pulver. His bad boy period followed years of youth spent in a middle-class commune, including several films more preoccupied with form than content -- they flopped. Says Vinterberg, "I found I am not an anarchistic form creator; I'm intuitive and I'm trying to figure out a way to explore human frailty." Subsequently his film The Hunt (2012) with Mads Mikkelsen was Academy-Awards nominated Best Foreign Language Film. Now comes "Madding"(2015), a workmanlike production that checks the director box for 'historical fiction', if a somewhat thin effort regarding Hardy's message. The film ploughs and slices through the novel's plot points without lingering on frailty of character, despite Vinterberg having staked out this territory in his own words and it's being material to the novel. But once you see the film, you will know backwards and forwards "what happens" in Hardy's famous work; have savored its sumptuous landscape; and found the piece enjoyable, whatever the critics say.

Vinterberg follows others, notably John Schlesinger, who directed a 3-hour version of the novel in 1967. Critics faulted Schlesinger for not conveying the paralyzing social constraints of the Victorians and for Julie Christie's Bathsheba played as an ethereal feminine archetype which Hardy's Bathsheba certainly was not; but otherwise Schlesinger is said to have better delivered on the psychological overtones than Vinterberg. Carey Mulligan's Bathsheba (above and below), however, is just right -- a sturdy young modern driven by her own will and sense (often naive) of being able to shape her own destiny -- decisively her own mistress and manager of her employees. She masters the business of her estate, impulsively marries the wrong guy, and then gets a do-over. Not bad, except for the tragedy left in her wake. Mulligan glows; she is very much up to the task of Bathsheba Everdene.

The plot in brief: A poor, if well-educated Miss Everdene inherits her uncle's estate and is determined to run it herself, including joining in farm labor. She juggles three earnest suitors -- the reticent if solid farmer Gabriel Oak played by the broad-shouldered Belgian, Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone, The Danish Girl, currently on screen in sizzler A Bigger Splash); wealthy neighbor Mr Boldwood played with painful self-abnegation by Michael Sheen, a stage and film actor of ingenious and resourceful talent (Masters of Sex), and Frank Troy, the narcissist, played by Tom Sturridge (On the Road, Effie Gray) as a brash, nasty piece of work for whom you squeeze out half an ounce of sympathy anyway. He has impregnated farm girl, Fanny, (Juno Temple), whose life is ruined, her tragedy threading sorrow through the story.

Hardy used some names intentionally. His Gabriel (not only having the surname 'Oak') means 'God's able bodied man'. Bathsheba, like Bathsheba of the Bible, is an object of desire who unwittingly causes death or disaster. A 'dene' is a deeply wooded gorge; thus 'Bathsheba Everdene' represents sex and destructive power set lushly in nature. And she surely played Helen to Sturridge's Troy.

Bathsheba herself hasn't a mean bone in her body; it's just that her strong sense of self stirs up and muddles the conventional expectations around her. Mr. Boldwood (below) says "Miss Everdene, I want very much, more than ANYTHING, to have you as my wife", but Bathsheba will be had by no one (until Troy seduces her, above). Vinterberg does not let us in on Mr. Boldwood's growing lapse into fantasy, pretending she will be his wife. We get a glimpse of his accumulated 'Bathsheba Boldwood' collection of jewels and clothing but nothing of his obsessive behavior. Michael Sheen makes brilliant use of bits of script to convey Boldwood's misery, he breaks your heart in just a few passages, but there is simply not enough story line there to help us imagine his progression from bereaved to demented.

Many a woman will recognize the art of the con in Francis Troy's first invasive stare at Bathsheba. (Hardy tells us Troy 'lied like a cretin' to women.) Just stare and tell a woman she is the most beautiful creature ever seen -- it works. Bathsheba melts into mush. From what we see of her responses to Oak and Boldwood's advances, Bathsheba's rapid seduction by the sociopathic Troy takes her (and us) off guard. She abandons her autonomy and 'what is right' in a mere moment. This shirker doesn't deserve a minute more time in our face, but it would have helped to linger a bit on Bathsheba's bedazzlement (a lesson to all women).

Matthias Schoenaerts' reliable sheep farmer gives nothing away. Whatever pain and disappointment he endures at Bathsheba's rejection, he gets the force of her independence but neither love nor pain ever shows in his eyes. Schoenaerts could have leaked something through those windows, though Gabriel Oak is otherwise endearing and his sensible counsel and actions form the backbone of the story. (Below he teaches her how to sharpen tools.)

Oak warns her about Troy, otherwise staying aloof and stoic while his rivals play out their hands, but supports her through crisis and chaos. At last, having been burned by love, Bathsheba finally knows his value to her, providing the slightly upbeat ending for a Hardy novel (though not upbeat for the several characters whose ending was quite terrible).

I have implicitly faulted Vinterberg for not letting us in quite enough on the harshness of the emotional lives of Hardy's characters; most of the information is there but the chop chop of events needs to slow so the heady emotion in the story can breathe enough for us to absorb it. Nonetheless, this is a lovely work that offers its pleasures, and Vinterberg has checked off 'period film' on his CV with enough dignity to move on -- or perhaps absorb a backward move. His next film The Commune, is based on his own childhood experience.

The above post was written by 
our monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

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