Thursday, May 7, 2015

Another run at Thomas Hardy

Carey Mulligan holds the center of Far From the Madding Crowd.

Filmmakers haven't always had the best of luck with British novelist Thomas Hardy, so it's hardly surprising that director Thomas Vinterberg's big-screen adaptation of Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd is a curiously mixed affair.

In its early going, Winterberg's movie plays like a CliffsNotes-inspired cascade of hurried plot developments.

A sampler:
-- We meet Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a young woman who fancies herself as radically independent. In short order, Bathsheba inherits a farm and an estate-like home in the fictitious rural area of Wessex that Hardy tended to favor.

-- An aspiring farmer (Matthias Schoenaerts) meets Bathsheba, and, within what seems like seconds, proposes to her. Schoenaerts, who hails from Belgium, makes the interchange believable, a sincere expression from a socially awkward man.

Of course, Bathsheba turns him down.

-- Thanks to a poorly trained sheep dog, Schoenaerts' Gabriel Oak loses his flock in a harrowing sequence in which his sheep are driven by the dog over a cliff. The loss causes Gabriel's farm to fail. Bereft of land, he sets out to find a new life.

-- After helping extinguish a fire on an estate he happens to be passing, Gabriel learns that he has stumbled upon Bathsheba's newly inherited property.

She hires him to work as the place's shepherd in residence. Metaphorically, he's always trying to put out the fires in her life.

You get the idea: Vinterberg, who began his career making Dogma films (The Celebration), and who, in 2012, scored with the disturbing The Hunt, advances the plot while offering what amount to quickly drawn character sketches.

The approach might have worked had Vinterberg's otherwise naturalistic images not been interrupted by the arrival of plot twists that seem hopelessly melodramatic. Hardy intended those same twists as evidence of the ways in which chance -- indifferent to human aspiration -- could alter and even ruin lives. Here, they're awkward stand-outs.

The rest of the story concerns a series of developments in which Bathsheba debates the merits of three suitors: Gabriel, whose love and loyalty never wavers; the tediously tormented William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), owner of the farm adjoining Bathsheba's estate; and the dashing Sgt. Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), a military man and obvious cad.

In one of the novel's most discussed scenes, Troy cuts through Bathsheba's resistance with a deft display of swordsmanship that arouses her desire. The movie follows suit, and Bathsheba -- heretofore governed by common sense -- falls prey to passion.

Marriage always seemed superfluous to Bathsheba, who needed no man to support her. Troy upsets the apple cart by turning her on.

Bathsheba marries Troy only to discover that she's not his one true love. Troy believes that the real love of his life (Juno Temple) humiliated him by leaving him waiting at the altar. He was wrong. In dithering haste, his fiancee showed up at the wrong church.

Mulligan ably conveys Bathsheba's intelligence, determination and wit, and there's nothing particularly wrong the rest of the performances, either.

But David Nicholls' screenplay either dawdles or moves to quickly, and although the movie flirts with being exceptional, it never quite fuses Hardy's themes into a heartbreakingly felt drama.

In a 1967 version, director John Schlesinger took two hours and 48 minutes to tell Hardy's story; perhaps it's a sign of progress that Vinterberg's version comes in just under two hours.

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