Far From the Madding Crowd ****
Dir: John Schlesinger. Starring: Julie Christie, Peter Finch, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp, Prunella Ransome, Freddie Jones. U cert, 168 min
This will be a big year for the wispier of our two Tom Hardys. An all-new Far From the Madding Crowd, directed by Dogme graduate Thomas Vinterberg and starring Carey Mulligan – calls upon us in May; by way of a refresher – or spoiler – this week sees MGM’s 1967 adaptation reissued in a new print. Back then, some observers saw John Schlesinger’s film, emerging in the year of Bonnie and Clyde and Godard’s Week-End, amid growing discontent on the streets of Europe, as further proof of British cinema’s tendency to retreat under layers of period clothing at times of social unrest. Once again, they said, we were operating in our own picturesque little world.
Still, how picturesque – and what a world. From the opening 360-degree pan over a desolate hillside, cinematographer Nic Roeg – that pre-eminent movie alchemist, yet to go Walkabout – transforms Hardy’s Wessex into a landscape both tangible and mystical, its vistas encompassing both abject desolation (shepherd Alan Bates watching his flock plummet over a cliff, a still-staggering image of loss) and stirring fecundity (Terence Stamp wooing Julie Christie in fields green enough to make Teletubbyland seem dull). Everything in this extraordinary evocation of island life is seasonal; these folk, their affections and fortunes, shift with the winds and tides.
Credit Schlesinger and screenwriter Frederic Raphael, then, for maintaining such a precise bearing on the personalities that define Hardy’s central love quadrangle. As Peter Finch’s landowner Boldwood dines alone, plagued by a ticking clock, you can audibly hear a man moving closer to death – whether his own, or someone else’s. Stamp proceeds from dashing blade to dastardly highwayman with a prowling panther’s grace, while contemporary filmmakers would surely make disastrous attempts to punch up Gabriel Oak’s quiet decency: Schlesinger wisely allowed Bates to take root in the background, projecting an appreciable sturdiness.
It’s typical of the film’s radical resistance to the swoony melodrama governing previous literary adaptations: Schlesinger grounds everybody in the mud, such that Christie’s increasingly self-reliant Bathsheba now seems a very modern gal, no more fool or victim than any of the men swarming about her. If it’s a little boxy – though never as chocolate-boxy as, say, Doctor Zhivago – its themes, images and ideas continue to be unpacked by today’s period directors, and this restoration permits their organic beauty to live and breathe anew. The Vinterberg variation will be going some to be as hardy – or, indeed, as thoroughly, richly Hardy – as this perennial.
Far From the Madding Crowd is now playing in selected cinemas.