There was a time in cinema when films didn’t depend on copious amount of CGI and special effects to make an impact. Instead they made their presence felt through the talent of the stars and the crew who made the production come alive on the screen. Director John Schlesinger’s sumptuous interpretation of Far from the Madding Crowd – author Thomas Hardy’s tale of heartache and tragedy set in the wilds of 19th century England – is one such film. Lovingly restored and rereleased by STUDIOCANAL in collaboration with the BFI at the London Film Festival in 2014, then released on DVD and Blu-Ray, this is a film in which to immerse oneself and remember the true beauty and majesty of film.
Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie), a headstrong and feisty young woman inherits a farm and small fortune upon the death of her uncle. Determined to run her new business alone she shocks the prudish and straight-laced Victorian society in which she lives. However Bathsheba has other things to worry her than the disapproval of the local community. Not only has she to run her farm but she also has to contend with the amorous attentions of three local men – the rugged, kindhearted shepherd Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), cold and remote landowner William Boldwood (Peter Finch) and rakish and cocky young soldier Sergeant Troy (Terence Stamp) – with far-reaching repercussions for them all.
In the years since its initial release many people, critics and public alike, have questioned the legitimacy of something which is not only long – at just short of three hours in running time watching this epic is not a challenge to undertaken lightly – but also rather grim and hardly uplifting in content. There are however things to remember when watching it. Hardy – whose timeless classic the film was based on – was working during the latter half of the 19th century around the same period as Charles Dickens (his first unpublished book was written three years before Dickens’ death). In a time before film and television people had to look to other forms of entertainment to fill their spare time, and reading in all its various forms was a popular pastime. As a result books were frequently long, detailed and intense, and contemporary authors had to work much harder than their modern counterparts to bring situations, characters and landscapes alive in their reader’s imaginations.
Inevitably screen adaptations of these period works, if a filmmaker wants to do them full justice, may appear ponderous to the modern audiences brought up on a diet of wham, bam action movies where everything is fed to the viewer at breakneck speed, and to linger on any given scenario for longer than thirty seconds will spell certain death. Here is a film which ambles gently across great swathes of England’s rolling landscapes, capturing the shifting shadows cast by great banks of clouds as their block the sun. When the rain falls or the wind howls in this film – which it does frequently – the viewer feels it as much as the characters on screen.
The characters are brought marvellously to life by Christie as the wilful and independently minded Bathsheba, with Stamp, Finch and Bates as her three prospective suitors. The hardships of country life and the rituals and social niceties between men and women of the period may seem alien to us now. However it is these details which not only add life to the stories by authors like Hardy, and hence any authentic representation of them on screen, but also act as an historical document of the period for future generations.
This aside however it is as much the work of the filmmakers behind the camera, as the stars in front of it, which makes this film the definitive version of one of Hardy’s most enduring and popular works. Schlesinger in his direction, Frederic Raphael’s screenplay, the cinematography of Nicolas Roeg and the Oscar nominated music by composer Richard Rodney Bennett come together to create a landscape peopled with an array of characters which who spring from the screen in situations which haunt the memory long after the film ends. Watching Far from the Madding Crowd may at times test the stoicism of the viewer. However the result ultimately proves much deeper and rewarding experience than that provided by many modern productions.