Monday, 25 May 2015

Flawed but irresistible

Jenny on Far from the Madding Crowd

As a child I used to sneak-read my mother’s Woman’s Weekly, especially the short stories. The story rarely varied from the formula where the young woman fell in love with a bounder or was tempted to have a career but realized in the nick of time that her true path was to marry the sensible boy next door, give up the career and become a happy housewife.

Compare this with Thomas Hardy’s unsettling and erotically charged novel Far From The Madding Crowd, written in 1874, the basis of many films and adaptations, the latest from Thomas Vinterberg. Bathsheba is impetuous, controlling, seductive, intelligent. Yet she falls for the bounder, Frank Troy, in this case the skinny, rosebud-lipped Tom Sturridge with an unfortunate moustache. In her case there is not one but two other choices she might make, Gabriel Oak the decent but dull farmer and William Boldwood a wealthy gentleman with depression and fetishistic issues. Bathsheba does not want to give up her career, nor does she; she likes running her farm and fails to see why she needs a man.

The problem with Vinterberg’s enjoyable film is that I can’t see why any feisty young woman would choose Tom Sturridge, even in his red soldier jacket, over the excitingly chunky Matthias Schoenaerts. This was a bit of a plot hole for me. Watching the famous scene where Troy does showy-offy things with his sword I found myself thinking, ‘Why is that girl letting that silly bloke slash his sword about like that? Someone will get hurt!’ I don’t think this is what Hardy intended, which was Freud before Freud.

Hardy’s novel is set in Dorset, as the film helpfully explains in the opening caption, ‘200 miles from London’. But really you’d never know from the voices. I imagine the Danish director discussing accents with his cast.

‘Let’s not bother with that Dorset burr’ he says. ‘Our North American audiences won’t understand it and so few actors can do it anyway, it would all come out sounding a bit Ambridge, so why don’t we just let everyone talk in their normal voice?’

The actors are delighted – no boring lessons with a voice coach! So Mr Boldwood (Michael Sheen, excellent) talks in his native Port Talbot, Matthias Schoenaerts is RP English with a touch of Antwerp and Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba enunciates beautifully in RADA-approved consonants at the end of every word that needs them. In fact come to think of it, the Royal Shakespeare Company could have made this film, though maybe with a few added comedy peasants.

It’s completely ravishing, except that nobody gets ravished; if you love rolling cliffs, dawns and sunsets and violins then you’ll be in heaven. It’s all rather breezy and most of Hardy’s explicitly gender-bending gothic stuff has gone. We know from the start that we’re seeing a peculiarly contorted romantic drama and we know how it will end, in this case with a wholly yukky close-up kiss. I loved it though – always knew that Woman’s Weekly stuff was a lie.