Far From the Madding Crowd Reviews
Just because something is filmed in wide-screen Cinemascope and covers a long chronological period doesn't mean it is broad in perspective. "Madding" has the look of a grand epic but the content of a soap opera. The Thomas Hardy novel upon which it is based must have some depth. But Schlesinger ends up providing the appearance of depth more than the real thing. His actors, who are almost absurdly talented, give a lot of meaningful looks, but they have little to say that is interesting.
Almost everyone from England's 1960s acting royalty is represented here, including Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, Alan Bates and Peter Finch. But great actors cannot do much more than look regal when all they have is soap opera to play. This is the downfall of British television in general: almost without fail it puts aristocratic actors into petit-bourgeois soap opera.
The film Schlesinger made after this, "Midnight Cowboy" (1969), is so much better than "Madding" that it's almost surreal. How could the same person direct these two films in the span of a few years? Amazing.
(Incidentally, I still don't know what the hell "madding" means. Also incidentally, if you haven't seen "Midnight Cowboy," you are missing out on something extraordinary.)
Good performances all round. Julie Christie is gorgeous and great in the lead role. Terence Stamp is instantly dislikeable as Sergeant Troy, the desired effect. Alan Bates gives a perfectly understated performance as Gabriel, and Peter Finch is convincing as William Boldwood.
What is ultimately most frustrating is that the characters themselves are leached of much of their complexity; the passion of Mr. Boldwood (Peter Finch) for the free-spirited Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie) is so abrupt, especially given that we are told he is "married to his farm", and so poorly explained, that when it dominates him and drives him to utter desperation, we really don't know why. That this fairly old-fashioned, fairly uncommercial period piece was made in the late 60s (perhaps in part to cash in on DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, also starring Christie) suggests that it may have been a pet project of director John Schlesinger, which makes its underwhelming nature all the more disappointing.
Films about unrequited love are difficult, in large part because showing another person as worthy of the pain of unreturned affection is incredibly difficult to do when one is not the disappointed lover. As such, the idea that three very different men should all fall in love with Bathsheba--one enough to stay loyal to her for years, one enough to forsake the girl he really loves, and one enough to go mad--is hard to fathom, partially because the character seems like a fairly flat free-spirit, and partially because Julie Christie's performance really doesn't make the grade. She doesn't breathe much real life into the role, and her Bathsheba isn't manipulative or really impulsive enough for one to wish her comeuppance, nor is she really sympathetic enough for one to root for her. She just sort of IS. And, while Christie is quite attractive, she doesn't have the kind of devastating beauty that would seem to justify, say, Boldwood's obsession. Christie isn't bad, but she seems somewhat lost in the role.
The men in her life fare better. Alan Bates' Gabriel Oak is easily the most sensible and likable character; virtuous (but not overwhelmingly so), resourceful, and patient, Bates really disappears into the role and ultimately steals the film. Terence Stamp is also good as the rakish Sgt. Troy, who gradually shows himself to be more than a simple cad; Stamp brings the expected sly energy to the role, while showing the troubled human beneath. As Boldwood, Peter Finch does well at showing the pathetically obsessive lover, but we gain little insight as to WHY he feels as he does, and one is left feeling sorry for him, but not really hurting for him. He was nonetheless given the National Board of Review Award for Best Actor.
John Schlesinger's direction is rather uneven: bursting with excitement and invention in a few scenes (the courtship via swordplay, the sorrowful rain/song montage in Part II, the drunken carriage ride), he mostly directs in the film-of-a-great-novel style that inspires little excitement. Frederic Raphael's screenplay, too, feels like a condensation of a larger work, and one that was not without its own flaws (a twist which occurs around 2 1/2 hours in feels like a twist, no more, and not a very good one at that). Visually, however, the film is a feast. Nicolas Roeg's cinematography, as noted, is wonderful, capturing the beautiful countryside and the painstaking production design by Richard Macdonald. In fact, if the film were silent, with the story fleshed out by intertitles, it could have been near-definitive. And if the film were silent, we could still have Richard Rodney Bennett's score as accompaniment. Bennett's music was the only part of the film nominated for an Oscar, and it's a fine, varied, romantic score, with nicely haunting elements and the intriguing use of a jig, slightly reworked, as a dramatic theme.
Despite its qualities, FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD received mixed reviews (although the National Board of Review also awarded it Best Picture) and was met with public indifference. Although the film has its defenders, to my eyes, at least, the film's obscurity is not at all hard to understand; it's a respectable, unexciting film of a classic novel, and like most respectable, unexciting adaptations, it has little life of its own.
I do know this much: The scene where moronic Francis wins Bathsheba's heart through showing off his sword tricks is one of the most ludicrous scenes I can remember seeing in a movie which intends to be a classy drama. I was haunted by its embarrassing memory throughout the remainder of the film and beyond.