There’s an odd charm about the British Victorian era that I’ve always been intrigued by. Perhaps it is the massive renovation of its society and values, the wondrous modesty of the archetypal British countryside (a motif heavily present throughout its culture), or simply modern media’s romanticisation of a time plagued by rampant social injustices, that I am so taken by this specific period in time.
Or perhaps it’s its literature.
Victorian literature, devoid of the confusions brought about by a near obsolete language as well as the abstractions of contemporary literature, is first and foremost easy to read. Its concerns – from the smallest details of the characters’ private lives to the macroscopic societal issues – often mirror those of our daily lives, and its style is commonly precise and absolute – that is, without the bells and whistles characteristic of literature that had come before it. Amongst the vast range of stories explored within the Victorian era’s short century or so, my favourites are definitely those that take place within the domestic realm – for stories about the war seem too grim, and those of the industry, too bleak. But the unassuming stories of the everyday countryfolks’ lives, with its petty dealings of marriage, money, and simply getting by are perfectly ideal with their optimism and mild moral chiding.
Thomas Hardy’s serialised novel, “Far From The Madding Crowd” belongs to the latter category of stories. It follows the life of Bathsheba, a headstrong, independent (and almost irresistibly attractive) young woman as she flits from proposal to proposal while managing a farm she has, as if with a Dickensian twist, inherited from her uncle. Evidently, the plot’s not that simple as hurdles are episodically thrown at our female protagonist, though they are suitably resolved at every turn, eventually concluding in a fine, fairytale ending in which Bathsheba ends up marrying her very first sweetheart, Gabriel Oak.
It’s a dear novel that I’ve read in preparation for my A Level literature syllabus (though it was later swapped by our literature tutor for Eliot’s “Silas Marner“, which I also loved,) and I was more than thrilled about the news of it being adapted into a full-length film starring one of my favourite actresses, Carey Mulligan. Granted my excitement and consequently high expectations of the production, I must admit that I left the cinema feeling marginally disappointed at what became of this beloved story.
It isn’t that the movie was bad, or that the adaptation strayed too far from the source – it’s just that I felt the medium of a two hour film to be slightly inappropriate for a story of such sorts – or of any serialised novel, actually. I mean, imagine all eighty-six chapters of Eliot’s “Middlemarch” being compacted into a two (or even three) hour long film! Because of the constraints placed by the medium by which Hardy’s novel was to be adapted, bits of the original plot had to be shaved off to make room for the more iconic scenes, and it seemed as if the characterisation of Bathsheba and her suitors was compromised for that. For example, there was an incidence of Boldwood bribing Frank Troy to give up Bathsheba missing from act two of the film, which could have given Boldwood a slightly more sinister edge to his, otherwise, merely angsty and tortured portrayal, such as to foreshadow his actions at the end of the story. And then there’s also the omission of the burial of Troy – in the same grave as his lover their child – at the end of the film that seems (to me) pretty crucial to tie up the knots in Bathsheba’s characterisation, redeeming her for her earlier harsh, albeit justifiable, treatment of Frank.
Another issue arising from the unsuitability of the choice medium to its source material was that the film appeared rather “choppy”, for the lack of a better word, to its viewers. While writers are granted the liberty to skip from moment to moment in their writing (even despite the lack of coherence between the two conjoined sub-plots written after each other) due to the privilege of having chapters and other separators to clarify the progression of the storyline, filmmakers cannot afford such a luxury. (Unless, of course, the filmmaker chooses to use title cards as freely as Wes Anderson does.) What resulted was a lost sense of chronological progression (though one can technically figure out the passing of the years from the mentions of crop harvests) and more unfortunately, a rather disjointed narrative. Perhaps if the novel was adapted for a TV serial, such issues would be resolved, but alas, the BBC opted for a film adaptation instead.
Still, there were merits to the abbreviation of the original novel. Bits of dialogue meant to signify the development of relationships between characters, specifically with Bathsheba and Gabriel Oak, were subtly and exquisitely condensed into these beautiful moments of repressed passion. Pages of descriptions and dialogues were replaced by seconds of locked eye-contact, played out so marvellously by the brilliant cast, and hence heightening the romance of the film beyond what written language can accomplish.
Considering the limitations placed upon the production by the lack of time to explore the detailed nuances of the novel, I would say that Vingerberg and David Nicholls did a pretty solid job of bringing the pages to screen. Bathsheba remains the likeable, all “too independent”, feminist character I know and love, perhaps made even more likeable with Carey Mulligan’s youthful prettiness and her modern, intelligent wit. I liked that they kept her iconic lines, including one that has stuck with me for years, “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” It’s rather incredible how Thomas Hardy wrote a more full-fledged, well-defined, “strong female character” in a patriarchal era where (white) women were just given the right to vote than many writers now. Maybe that’s why I so enjoy watching a period film based on older works from time to time in between all the contemporary independent films and the Hollywood blockbusters. Maybe we should start writing like back in those days again.
And I digress.
Well, what else can I say about the film?
Well, it looks unbelievably stunning, and the soundtrack’s absolutely divine – almost, just almost, on the level of Joe Wright’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. I do believe the costuming department’s a frontrunner for next year’s academy awards, and my, the casting is perfect. Matthias Schoenaerts was every bit as handsome and sincere as Gabriel Oak should be, while Michael Sheen and Juno Temple basically carried their characters through whatever little characterisation they had, fleshing them out through their acting. On a side note, why is Juno Temple constantly cast as the unfortunate girl taken by the sly temptations of a smooth-talker, to only face ruin eventually? Or at least, she was that in Atonement.
I suppose all I can say now’s that Vingerberg’s adaptation of “Far From The Madding Crowds” is something I’d love to like, despite its flaws. I’m glad the film’s getting generally positive reviews (it’s got a rating of 85% on rotten tomatoes) which means that my judgement of the film may be wrong. Watch it if you’re into period films, watch it if you’re looking for a well-written strong female character in the dire straits that’s our current box office, watch it if you will. Maybe you’ll like it better than I did.