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Into the Madding Country

Alexis Brown


Far From the Madding Crowd
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
UK, 2015

Thomas Hardy didn’t choose his names by accident. He took the title for his fourth novel from Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’:

Far From the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way. (73-76)

As Lucasta Miller has noted, Hardy’s reference ironizes the idyllic English countryside, as he thrusts a dark undertow of violence and desire beneath its docile landscape. In a similar stroke of irony, his “Bathsheba” (Carey Mulligan) is no biblical pawn, but a woman intent on making her own way in the world, hoping to “astonish,” she says, us all. And she does. Far From the Madding Crowd follows Bathsheba as she transforms from an orphan under the guardianship of an aunt to the mistress of her own successful farm, inherited from a recently deceased uncle. At the centre of her story are three suitors, the first of whom is Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoernaerts), an aspiring farmer. The film opens not long before his rather inelegant proposal, in which he promises her a piano (every eligible young woman, it seems, is in desperate need of a piano). Her refusal on the grounds that he could never tame her—and would despise her for it—proves fortunate, as the next day, Gabriel’s sheep dog mistakenly drives his herd over the edge a cliff, destroying the farm that would have been theirs and plunging Gabriel into poverty.

And this is only the beginning of Bathsheba’s romantic (mis)adventures. It is a story that has been ranged over by several adaptations—most famously by John Schlesinger in 1967—but Thomas Vinterberg takes a refreshing look at Hardy’s novel, offering us a sharp and stylish retelling of a classic love story. His main strength is Carey Mulligan. Every twitch in Mulligan’s eyes unpicks her various suitors; the slightest curve in her lip connotes their success or—more frequently—their failure. Here is a woman who knows not only her mind, but also her power—and who, better yet, refuses to shrink away from either. And this is perhaps why Mulligan was a bit miscast as the whimsical, child-like Daisy in Baz Lurhman’s The Great Gatsby (2013), and why, for this same reason, she outstrips Julie Christie’s 1967 Bathsheba, despite Christie’s elegant (if unsubtle) performance: Mulligan’s every look is so intelligent, so carefully discerning, that the viewer often wonders why Bathsheba would ever seriously consider these men at all. Her next suitor, the wealthy William Boldwood, (in a wonderfully restrained performance by Martin Sheen) fares no better. He offers her a house; she, unfortunately for him, tells him that she already has one.

But what is it about a certain breed of arrogant, selfish men that can make even the most intelligent women simper? Enter Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), the charming, morally bankrupt man who finally succeeds in seducing Bathsheba into marriage. The scene of this seduction takes place in a hollow in the ferns, as Troy performs a breath-taking sword trick, slicing the air around Bathsheba before taking off a lock of her hair. Unlike the equally brilliant 1967 scene, in which the camera ranges along a hillside as it follows Troy’s repeated mock-charges, here the camera stays remarkably contained. Poised at eye-level between the two, almost entirely in close-up, it mediates their encounter with striking intimacy, making their final kiss all the more explosive. And here Vinterberg offers a modern flourish—the kiss comes accompanied by a surprisingly un-English hand between her legs (what the actors apparently called a ‘Danish handshake’), a move that Vinterberg hoped would demonstrate the sexual awakening that so changes Bathsheba for the film’s remainder. Where other men offer her mere possessions, Troy offers her a more visceral, violent kind of power. His is a naked ambition that resonates with her own.

Yet it is an ambition swathed in the security of her distinctly middleclass, and then upper-middle class standing. The film does well in further underscoring how Bathsheba’s sparky independence is entirely a function of her social position. In one instance, after describing why she first chose not to marry Gabriel, her servant retorts, “What a luxury—to be able to choose.” It is a subtle admonition to which Bathsheba has no answer, as indeed, she has already answered her several suitors’ offers by claiming she already has a piano, and a house, and therefore no need for a husband. These remarks, if admirable, nonetheless beg the question of whether she would still refuse them if this were not the case.

Looming ever present are the magisterial hills and the windswept knots of wild grass and hay rolling over the Dorset landscape. It is a backdrop that suggests, as does the film’s ostensibly happy ending, that all is well in “the cool sequester’d vale” of Gray’s poem, and that the “noiseless tenor” of these characters’ lives has been restored. And yet what stays with me most is the image of sheep after sheep tumbling in a senseless repetition off the edge of a jagged cliff, spelling Gabriel’s certain disaster. Their screams punctuate the otherwise eerily calm setting in a way that shows the sheer capriciousness of fate at the heart of this story, in its utter indifference to our own whims and desires. To hear those screams here embodied, aural, and so much more immediate makes Bathsheba’s desperate will towards self-determination all the more urgent, and all the more sad.

Alexis Brown is a second year DPhil Candidate at Wolfson College. Her dissertation, focusing on literary biopics, is supported by the Rhodes Trust and an Oxford Centre for Life-Writing Doctoral Scholarship.