Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) - John Schlesinger

Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie), a beautiful young woman, unexpectedly inherits a substantial farm and wealth. Independent of will and vivacious, she soon has charge of the place, dispensing with her thieving foreman. She quickly attracts the amorous attentions of three men: Gabriel Oak, a poor but hard-working sheep farmer; William Boldwood, a bland but prosperous man in his early forties and a confirmed bachelor; and Sergeant Frank Troy, dashingly handsome and reckless and given to sudden fits of temper. 

A rustic farm house in Dorset, England. 

Based on Thomas Hardy's wonderful 1874 novel, the film centers mainly on the romantic life of Bathsheba, and gives shorter shrift to the class distinctions aspects of the book. Still, it is a fine adaptation. What strikes you first is the gorgeous cinematography of the lush Dorset countryside by Nicolas Roeg. This is a beautiful film to look at. Roeg captures the rolling hills of the bucolic setting and the farmhands at work in muted earth tones. The color is reminiscent of certain Impressionists: Van Goth's wheat fields and hay stacks and Monet's poppy fields. Roeg's previous work included Fahrenheit 451 as director of photography, and he served on the camera crew for Lawrence of Arabia , Doctor Zhivago, and The Sundowners.

Having Julie Christie as your main subject certainly helps. Twenty-six here, she looks stunning against the rural landscape. Director Schlesinger wisely dons her in simple white and brown dresses for the most part, and gives her plenty of closeups.

Julie Christie as Bathsheba.

Christie gives a fine performance. She takes her flirtatious character from poor beginnings and evolves into a strong-willed, confident business woman as she deals with matters of the heart and overcomes some serious lapses in judgment. She treats her farmhands well but expects hard work in return, saying:

"Don't anyone suppose that because I'm a woman, I don't understand the difference between bad goings-on and good. I shall be up before you're awake, I shall be afield before you're up, and I shall have breakfasted before you're afield. In short, I shall astonish you all."

If a tad self-centered at the start, Bathsheba undergoes a maturation over the course of the story. Among her three suitors, Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), the first, is the one you root for. His name is suggestive; throughout the story he is the most practical and sensible character. An early incident reveals his kind nature--he interrupts a journey to help extinguish a dangerous fire, threatening to destroy ricks of hay. Panicked farmhands are disorganized. Oak takes over and gets the blaze under control. Surprisingly, the farm belongs to Bathsheba, a girl who earlier rejected his marriage proposal. Thankful for Oak's assistance, she now offers him the job of foreman, with the understanding that theirs is strictly an employer/employee relationship. He accepts, in part because he still loves the girl "far more than common."

Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak.

One of the best scenes in the film occurs early, before Oak's reappearance into Bathsheba's life. You get a good idea of how life was during the time. Oak lives alone, in a small hut with insufficient heat. He toils trying to establish himself as a successful farmer, but when one of his dogs chases his sheep herd over a cliff, he is left destitute. It is a sad moment, and a shocking one. He reluctantly puts the dog down and we understand that he is essentially a good, caring man, no-nonsense in his approach to work and self-sufficient. He'll do what needs to be done. His hopes dashed, he takes to the road in search of work. Bates, in his most handsome and likable role, is wonderful.

Peter Finch plays the love-sick Boldwood. He falls in love with Bathsheba at first sight and later misinterprets a flippant valentine. His relentless pursuit thereafter becomes a little pathetic, but Finch captures the man's uncontrolled crush perfectly. Obsessed with the woman, he lets his own farm go downhill, and he even goes so far as to try to buy off a rival. By the end, consumed by jealousy, he loses all control of his actions to disastrous results.

Boldwood bribes Sergent Troy.
Though Boldwood offers security, Bathsheba has unwisely lost her own heart to a rakish soldier, Sergeant Troy (Terence Stamp). Troy, handsome and romantic, is also an untrustworthy cad. More troubling, he seems mentally and emotionally unstable, as revealed when another girl unavoidably arrives late for their planned wedding. Troy is humiliated and unforgiving. He summarily rejects the girl, whose later death, along with a stillborn child, will have consequences for them all.

When it comes to Troy, Bathsheba is as smitten as Boldwood, and acts nearly as foolishly. After having turned his back on his fiance, she becomes the object of Troy's charms. They marry. He likes to gamble and isn't very good at it, and it takes a while for her to realize he is interested only in her money. Even then, she is too forgiving. All the while, the faithful and knowledgeable Oak waits in the wings. When everyone gets drunk after a harvest, a storm threatens to ruin the crop. Only Oak comes to the rescue in a dramatic scene, the wind whipping canvas and the rain pelting him and Bathsheba. Later, he saves her sheep from bloat.


It is a long film and for good portions it meanders at a leisurely pace. No doubt this was a conscious decision by Schlesinger, and a good one as it suits a story set in the countryside during this period. "Madding" of the title means frenzied, author Hardy's description for urban life. And indeed, life on the farm is anything but frenzied. The love affairs of the principal characters are another matter.

A nice scene with Bathsheba and her farmhands, enjoying a celebratory picnic, is a good example of mid-18th Century life in the English countryside. The characters enjoy an amiable moment, Christie sings a traditional folk song, Bushes and Briers, and we are transported to a different time and place. The cast of farmhands and maids look perfect: rough and weathered faces from a life of labor outdoors, and costumed as we expect such simple folk would be. Unlike the ambitious Bathsheba, they accept their lowly place in society, and only aspire for a warm ceiling overhead and a glass of beer after a hard day's work. Boldwood arrives uninvited and Bathsheba invites him to sit. He looks longingly at her. So do we.

This marked Christie's 3rd Schlesinger film, following Billy Liar (1963) and Darling (1965), for which she won the Oscar as Best Actress. Richard Rodney Bennett received an Oscar nomination for his score. It fits the pastoral scene nicely and feels right for Victorian England. Otherwise the film was ignored at Oscar time, somewhat understandable given that year's competition. Hollywood was in a transition, and films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and In the Heat of the Night were that year's popular attractions. Still, it seems a far worthier candidate for recognition than the silly Doctor Doolittle. Besides the aforementioned cinematography, the costumes are terrific and the set design impeccable.

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