Eye For Film >> Movies >> Far From The Madding Crowd (1967) Film Review
When I heard that a new film version of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel was in the pipeline, I thought: what’s the point? Watching Schlesinger’s magnificent retelling again has only reinforced that opinion tenfold.
Because for me, and I suspect an entire generation, this is the definitive, almost faultless, take on one of English literature’s most powerful and evocative works. For all the talent assembled for the new version (Thomas Vinterberg at the helm, David Nicholls on screenplay duties and Carey Mulligan, Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge among the cast) it’s hard to imagine it being anything like as memorable and lasting.
Seeing it on the big screen (as part of a limited release for a newly-restored print, with a bells-and-whistles DVD hopefully hard on its heels) took me right back to my first encounter with it - as a lad, one rainy Christmas Day afternoon. My mother and sisters persuaded the male half of the family to turn the telly to BBC2; I sat down in a sulk – and was hooked within minutes.
Because this was far from the usual decorous, chocolate box-y adaptation of A Great Work. The opening shot of sea-pounded cliffs and stark, endless moors transported me to another world. Swiftly followed by the famous scene of a mad dog unwittingly driving a flock of sheep over the edge of a precipice. It still packs a punch 40 years on. It vividly illustrates the harsh world Hardy’s characters live in. And it’s a perfect metaphor for the theme of unwitting tragedy that runs through the book (and Hardy’s work as a whole) like a main artery.
It also kick-starts the plot, as the flock belongs to the shepherd Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), and his dream of setting up his own farm perishes with it. Taking himself off to a memorably realised “hiring fair”, he’s eventually taken on by Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie), a spirited, independent local girl who’s just inherited her uncle’s farm – and whom Gabriel courted unsuccessfully when he had greater expectations.
Bathsheba has decided to take on the management of the farm herself, much to the amazement of the workers. But she soon proves herself more than capable of the task. Gabriel becomes her strong right hand and their admiration and affection for each other grows.
But they clash occasionally – especially when Bathsheba attracts the attention of Mr Boldwood (Peter Finch), the main landowner in the neighbourhood. Seemingly just a decent, dry old stick Bathsheba, seeing his offers of advice as carrying a hint of condescension, begins a light-hearted flirtation. But this taps into a well of repressed passion and Boldwood begins to court her with a dangerously obsessive single-mindedness.
Meanwhile, Bathsheba’s heart has been won at last by the dashing Sgt Troy (Terence Stamp), a local lad gone for a soldier but now back in the district. She’s completely smitten, but Troy proves better at romance than marriage, or running a farm. And when a ghost from his past emerges, all the characters are drawn into a tragic vortex…
All this is played out against a stunning, elemental backdrop, brilliantly realised by cinematographer Nic Roeg (soon to launch a memorable career of his own with Performance). He brings a painter’s flair and eye for detail to violent storms and idyllic summer scenes alike – and throws in a surreal Sixties vinette, where a drunk waggoner sees a herd of cows morph and curve before his eyes, for good measure.
It’s these sideways glances at rural life before the railways that give the film its heart and soul – and its perhaps over-lengthy running time. But they ground the central love story in a concrete reality, making the characters seem both tiny specks in an elemental landscape and living, breathing people whose emotional traumas are another hardship, like weather and disease, to be endured.
This could all be hard going, but Raphael and Schlesinger have as good an eye and ear for Hardy’s lighter touches – where the characters take pleasure in good food and drink, song and cheer. As well as a lush, evocative score by the classical composer Richard Rodney Bennett, a series of well-chosen folk ballads act as a running chorus to the characters’ highs and lows and (just as in the original novel) foreshadow the eventual tragedy.
The film feels almost a part of the folk revival which was happening in British rock music at the time (keen-eyed aficionados will spot the Fairport Convention fiddler and frontman Dave Swarbrick in one scene, and Roeg was soon to document one of the classic folk-rock festivals in ‘Glastonbury Fayre’ ). But it’s a very different beast to the hip, contemporary Swinging Sixties films that were around at the time (such as Darling, which Schlesinger, Raphael and Christie had collaborated on to Oscar-winning effect), which may explain its somewhat tepid critical reception at the time.
But its status has grown over the years and watching it again on the big screen only reinforces its excellence. And I haven’t even mentioned Stamp’s ‘swordplay seduction’ scene, which is merely the most memorable example of the central quartet’s interplay; quite simply, four of the finest screen actors these islands have ever produced, at the absolute top of their game.
They’re backed by a terrific supporting cast. All of them look as if they’ve just finished sitting for a tinplate photograph and a few – Fiona Walker as Lydia, Bathsheba’s housekeeper and sole female confidant; Freddie Jones as the loyal but feckless farmworker Cainy Ball; and Prunella Ransome as Troy’s old flame, Fanny Robin – give performances every bit the equal of the stars.
Are there any flaws? Well, they could have tried harder with the Wessex accents (Stamp, in particular, sounds like he’s never been closer to the West Country than Shepherd’s Bush market). Schlesinger occasionally favours building atmosphere over moving the story along (though it’s never dragged for me). And the overly-melodramatic aspects, and plot holes, of Hardy’s early hit are faithfully reproduced.
But these seem minor quibbles in a film that’s simultaneously an essay on landscape, an evocation of a bygone era so acute it could almost have been made in the time it depicts, an acting masterclass and an exploration of love in all its many forms. Schlesinger made other great films (his next, Midnight Cowboy, was as different from this as you could imagine) and there have been other fine adaptations of Hardy (Polanski’s Tess and Michael Winterbottom’s Jude spring to mind). But this is a highpoint in his career and an object lesson in how to catch the spirit of a great book as well as telling its story.
I really do wish Vinterberg and co the very best. I’m sure their version will be worth a look. If it’s got any sense, it’ll be a very different take on a rich and multi-faceted novel. But I can’t see it bettering this one; a film that gets just about everything right and that (even after multiple viewings) I wouldn’t change if I could.Reviewed on: 20 Mar 2015