I have been in love with John Schlesinger’s 1967 film of Far from the Madding Crowd ever since I first saw it in a shorter, panned and scanned VHS version when I was sixteen years old. Since then I have seen it several times in several formats, including a “compromised widescreen” print on the BBC and the completely uncut version in proper widescreen (my current DVD copy). But I had never seen it at the cinema, until tonight.
All I can say is wow. My cinematic bucket list now has another tick, and I have an excuse to write a rave review of what has always been a criminally underrated film. A new version of Far from the Madding Crowd starring Carey Mulligan is due for release soon, hence this reissue, but boy will Thomas Vinterberg have his work cut out trying to top Schlesinger’s vision.
The story, for those unfamiliar with the Thomas Hardy novel, concerns Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie), who inherits a large farm in 19th Century Dorset, and her profound effect on three very different men – Sergeant Frank Troy (Terence Stamp), down-to-earth sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), and prosperous landowner William Boldwood (Peter Finch). It is a swooning, richly atmospheric tale of passion, lust, obsession and love with the shocking turns one expects from a Hardy epic of largely doomed romance.
All four main performances are magnificent (there were raised eyebrows over the casting of Christie at the time), Frederic Raphael’s screenplay captures the essence of Hardy with equal magnificence – which is not, as some mistakenly believe, all brooding misery. The darker elements of the story are seasoned with gentle moments of humour and humanity, and Schlesinger directs both the comic and tragic with brilliant subtlety and astonishing flair. Hugely memorable sequences include the storm after the harvest home, and when nature itself seems to weep for poor Fanny Robin. Actually that bit is directly followed by a hilarious scene involving a drunken labourer and some rather psychedelic cows, hence my earlier point about tragedy tempered with humour.
But the scene Far from the Madding Crowd is notorious for remains Troy’s display of swordsmanship as he woos Bathsheba. The scene – set memorably against Wiltshire’s eerie pre-Christian burial mounds – is simultaneously impressive, ridiculous (it is somewhat laughable) and erotic to a point that one is astonished the film passed with a U certificate. Stop sniggering at the back…
Cinematographer Nic Roeg captures the Wessex countryside in all its beauty, menace and melancholy, perfectly complimenting the equally melancholy subject matter. Roeg went on to direct classics including Walkabout and Don’t Look Now, but for me his contribution to this film remains a considerable gem in the crown of his career. The dirt-under-the-nails physicality of the imagery is also complimented by Richard Rodney Bennett’s music score and the authentic folk songs used to punctuate key points in the narrative.
All told, Far from the Madding Crowd remains an earthy, evocative, haunting dream of a film that really gets under the skin. Do catch it on the big screen if you possibly can.