Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd has over the century or more since his novel was published in 1874, become a literary gem, a classic – of renowned excellence, worthy of debating how we make our way in the world. True to its source, the tale is charged with life in a rural idyll where fire, famine, the forces of nature, financial ruin and fear are omnipresent.
It is about holding the ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and what family truly means up very high, valuing it above all else … its essence unable to be erased by our own contemporary ideas of what modernity means.
It is set in a dream environment; gently rolling hills and verdant valleys in the magical county of Wessex, King Arthur’s country, one full of natural beauty.
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, with a screenplay by David Nicholls the film features Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene, Matthias Schoenaerts as Farmer Oak, Michael Sheen as William Boldwood, Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Troy and Juno Temple as Fanny in a substantial retelling of the story now showing in Australia at Palace Cinemas.
Bathsheba Everdene is an independent young woman with the enviable challenge of having three suitors, Farmer Oak, William Baldwood and Sargeant Francis Troy, which in Victorian England for any other woman would normally be a triumph.
The film has many merits, including a feisty, fabulous performance from the lovely Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene.
At the heart of the tale Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene are on a quest to find each other with her earnest rich neighbour and the dashing man in the red coat both complicating matters.
Bathsheba is not just any woman, but one totally out of step with her age and that’s a difficult place to be. Carey Mulligan is quite superb in this role with a vulnerability born of loving simplicity combined with an inner strength that defies description.
She only becomes lost when confused between lust and love.
Farmer Oak, Thomas Hardy tells us is ‘… a young man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good character’. He is played with simmering intensity by Matthias Schoenaerts – his Farmer Oak oozes intelligence.
He has gravitas; is steadfast, strong and sturdy as the oak tree that symbolises England, someone dependable that you can always rely on, rock solid full of inner strength and fortitude.
Becoming an adult is not an easy thing for any of us to come terms with. It is all about achieving a balance between the limitless possibilities, the obstacles and the obligations we have and true happiness. This is dependent on the decisions we make.
Courted by a handsome young man in a flashy red military uniform at a time when Bathsheba feels cornered between accepting the wealthy Mr Boldwood’s generous offer or following her destiny with the real man of her heart is a dilemma. Sadly Farmer Oak is now not only her inferior in society, but also in her employ. Surprisingly she opts out accepting the hand of the soldier, which is not in line with her independent thinking, but completely at odds with it.
Taking what looks like the easier road and marrying the dashing Sargeant who woos her by testing her fear, she finds out that being his wife is a much harder road to hoe than she would have ever imagined.
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
Sadly Bathsheba and Gabriel will both find that the vale of life has many trials and tribulations for them to surmount before they can be together.
Gabriel Oak is certainly my kind of guy; sure of his own worth and wanting any woman he loves enough to marry to be his equal in all things.
He comes across Bathsheba one day, riding across a field where he’s driving his sheep shockingly sitting astride her horse. As he watches she allows herself to recline along her horse’s back, abandoning herself to the freedom of the moment… and the joy of life.
Bathsheba is a young lady far more comfortable in jodhpurs and gingham than gorgeous gowns.
Orphaned she lives with her aunt, helping out in the fields and gardens. There’s not really anything she cannot turn her hand to.
Independence and the societal constraints for women were at odds with each other in the Victorian era in England and independence and the land are integral to Bathsheba’s emotional sustenance.
This is not something she’s going to easily give up for any man just for the asking. And ask Farmer Oak does; a premature proposal Bathsheba declines, telling him “I’m too independent…you’d have to tame me’.
Having rejected her eager suitor, who is humiliated, Bathsheba receives a welcoming letter.
Twenty miles away her rich uncle has died leaving her in his will his successful and substantial farmhouse with its many out buildings and all the people who work it to care for as well.
She leaves on her own journey in life without a backward glance and it will take Bathsheba a while to realize the decisions she makes threaten to not only nearly bring all those she cares about undone, but also impact on other people’s lives, some with tragic results.
It’s not an easy lesson in the learning.
Unknown to Bathsheba Farmer Oak has fallen on hard times since his embarrassing rejection and on the road looking for a place to be. Wandering the countryside, he happens upon a fire and makes a choice, to go and assist.
With quick thinking he becomes the hero of the hour, taking charge and guiding the workers to save a long barn on a farm. When the owner arrives through the mist of smouldering smoke the workers rush to tell of his outstanding contribution.
She comes to thank him personally and he discovers it is Bathsheba. Discovering he’s looking for work she takes him on as her shepherd.
This is a story that demands that choices be considered and this the point when he realises he will have to make his choice; to let Bathsheba go or to stay around and watch over her until she has reached a point where he can martyr himself and ultimately leave her safe in the knowledge she is happy.
What a luxury, to have a choice,” says the lovely Liddy, a young woman who now assists Bathsheba in her new role, as they debate whether to get married at all.
Bathsheba has been granted the freedom she has yearned for all her life and the means to enable and embolden her to think for herself.
She can sit as head of her own table, her workers around her sharing the bounty of their industry and laughing together.
She wants to go forward and to pursue her dreams at a time and place in the world where all things are possible.
Bathsheba’s story would later inspire the suffragette’s with themes that are always modern, because they are about ‘identity.
Bathsheba doesn’t want to be put on a pedestal and worshipped.
She doesn’t’ want a life of wealth and luxury either, and this is gently offered to her by her new kind and obliging wealthy neighbour who seemingly has it all, Mr Boldwood who she has teased by sending him a ‘valentine’ without thought or consideration of what it may mean to him.
Again, Bathsheba doesn’t take either his sincerity or earnestness seriously.
He is a warm and kindly man who has had a disappointing life and seeks to be loved for himself rather than what he has, which is what we really all want too. This gives him hope she can be his.
Michael Sheen is superb, as he delivers a very sensitive portrayal of Boldwood, a man noble in defeat especially when Bathsheba turns him down as well. A man however who will always spring to defend her honour if it is demanded of him, which is in his stars. It is his undoing.
The dashingly handsome soldier’s red coat becomes a metaphor for her seduction; whether gracing his body, hanging in their bedroom as her husband or laid out down by the seashore where it is assumed he’s drowned.
Bathsheba doesn’t know it but Sargeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) was in grief when she met him for the love of his life Fanny who had failed to turn up to the church where he was waiting.
Proud, humiliated he flees not knowing she’s made a mistake about the location that kept her from him that it would ultimately mean her death and that of his child.
I read this story in my mid teens and must admit it took me quite down.
It also coloured my view forever of what a love relationship between a man and woman was all about …captured so sensitively and succinctly and reinforced later by such words as ‘let there be spaces in your togetherness’…make not a bond of love’*.
Bathsheba and Oak speak very little of their mutual feeling; pretty phrases and warm expressions were ‘…unnecessary between such tried friends’. Theirs was a meeting of mind, body and soul.
‘Happy circumstance permits the development of their love, the compounded feeling proving itself to be the only love which is strong as death — that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam’ says Thomas Hardy.
Gabriel Oak’s inner being and anxiety over his status keeps him from speaking out his true feelings on so many occasions.
He is hoping Bathsheba will find him and know he is, and always has been, her one true love.
Stubborn until the end however, he won’t come to her unless she meets him half way, which he finally does and we can leave satisfied that in finally acknowledging their equality each to the other, that they are both set free.
It’s no co-incidence Far from the Madding Crowd gained its title from another literary source, the memorable An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard (1751).
The nineteenth century was an age of great discoveries and many found the eighteenth century poem ‘…abounded with images which find a mirror in every mind and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo’.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
Watch the Trailer