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Far from the Madding Crowd
The team of director John Schlesinger and actress Julie Christie had struck gold twice already when they made Far from the Madding Crowd in 1967. Billy Liar and Darling had been solid hits for the pair, and the latter was also written by Frederic Raphael, the scribe who adapted this Thomas Hardy novel for the screen. Though I prefer those two other films to this, the third time is still a charm, and Far from the Madding Crowd is another winner from this collective.
This Victorian drama features Christie as Bathsheba Everdene, the daughter of a poor widow who stumbles into a large estate when the uncle she is caring for dies. Rather than take a husband to run the place for her, Bathsheba takes charge of the land and with the aid of a no-nonsense shepherd, Gabriel (Alan Bates), makes something of the property. Gabriel is actually from her hometown, and at one time he proposed to Bathsheba, only to be laughed off. Misfortune has caused him to lose his own land, which is how he ends up leaving their remote beginnings and joining his one-time desire, albeit by chance, at her rural estate.
A woman like Bathsheba isn't going to have only one suitor, though, and before long, she attracts the attention of neighboring landowner William Boldwood (Peter Finch). Though Boldwood's reputation is for spurning all amorous advances, a flippant Valentine's card from Bathsheba gets his attention, and quite unexpectedly, he ends up making a fool of himself pursuing her hand. Much to his chagrin, Bathsheba is more intent on making a fool of herself by chasing the roguish soldier Frank (Terence Stamp). The scoundrel captures her heart while the boring but socially acceptable choice waits in the wings, and all the while, the more sensible and dependable shepherd goes ignored.
As far as I'm concerned, Alan Bates gives the most winning performance in Far from the Madding Crowd, and given that he's the man that Bathsheba should end up with, it probably shouldn't have been any other way. He's not the romantic sort, but he's stalwart and proud, and not in any way that proves to be a fault. Bates, carrying the same kind of physical presence that Russell Crowe has in his more down-to-earth roles, makes Gabriel a man's man, but not without heart, soul, and the know-how to put both to use. Everything you need to know about the character is in his second main scene, when he loses his sheep in a hellish accident. Seeing the culprit, an overzealous canine, Gabriel hesitates enough to show he's a considered individual, and then he does what needs to be done.
The rest of the cast ably backs Alan Bates in his endeavors. Terrence Stamp is both repulsive and alluring in equal measure, while Peter Finch makes Boldwood both pathetic and sympathetic--no mean feat. Julie Christie is very good, as well, but her character is more of a cypher. For as much as she makes a show of standing alone and doing as she pleases, the tricky part of this narrative is that the influence Bathsheba has on others is really only to draw them toward her. She is indecisive and often incapable of seeing past the immediate moment, and she comes to rely on each man in turn--Gabriel to run her farm, Frank to ignite her passion, and Boldwood just to be there, a fallback husband she can never fully embrace or totally deny. Like her Biblical namesake, Bathsheba inspires many a man to many sins at the risk of his own personal kingdom.
John Schlesinger replicates Victorian England with the same kind of attention to detail he drew out of modern day locales in his earlier pictures. In this, he is most handily assisted by his director of photography, Nicolas Roeg (who would not long after distinguish himself as a director of his own features). Roeg uses the widescreen Panavision process to its full advantage, capturing great expanses of English countryside. There are many beautiful shots here, including Frank's childish seduction of Bathsheba out in the open fields and even the much smaller moment of Julie Christie framed in her kitchen window as the sun crawls into the magic hour outside.
If there is any fault to be found in Far from the Madding Crowd, it's that it maybe need not be quite as long as its nearly three-hour running time. The film can move a little slow at times, particularly in its first hour or so. I guess just as we must like Gabriel better than the rest, so too do we need the rake to add a little spice, because the proceedings pick up after Frank chases Bathsheba around with his sword. From there, the rest of the film moves by at a perfect pace, the teasing ins and outs of Bathesheba's soap opera life weaving a complex tapestry of hubris, passion, regret, and redemption.
Warners has given Far From the Madding Crowd a crisp new 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that really brings the film alive. The colors are all rich and warm, and there are only two or three instances of any extraneous elements on the print. There was a case of a little haziness in the darkness near the end when we see a character in prison, but other than that, I see no real problems. The outdoor, daytime scenes look spectacular.
This new DVD is said to be an extended international cut restoring 3 minutes to the movie that had not been on North American prints prior. Nosing around, I was able to ascertain that this includes the full cockfight sequence as well as maybe one or two short additions throughout. There are also an overture and intermission music, which were not on some earlier home video releases. This makes the version here 171 minutes, while previous running times have wavered between 168 and 170.
The soundtrack has been remastered, as well, with a strong Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The sound is vibrant and alive, with only minor instances of added hiss.
Closed captioning is available for English speaking viewers, and there are also French subtitles.
The original theatrical trailer is included.
Though a bit slow to start, Far from the Madding Crowd turns into an engrossing period drama about a deceptively independent land owner (Julie Christie) and the three men (Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Terence Stamp) who aspire to win her love. Full of marvelous cinematography and complex performances, John Schlesinger's 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy captures the twisted affairs of the heart in the Victorian era. Fans of David Lean's more romantic epics or the Merchant Ivory oeuvre should also appreciate Far from the Madding Crowd. That would include me, and so this DVD is Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.