Film review: Far From The Madding Crowd

Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak and Cary Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene in Far From The Madding Crowd

Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak and Cary Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene in Far From The Madding Crowd

I could pick holes bigger than a haystack in Thomas Vinterberg’s reboot of Far From the Madding Crowd, but that would be churlish when I enjoyed it so much. My reasons aren’t terribly scholarly, but everything and everyone looked so sumptuous, it was as intoxicating as a balmy Pimm-drenched English summer evening.

Shamefully, I’ve never seen the 1967 Julie Christie-starring John Schlesinger film of Thomas Hardy’s brooding Dorset novel (if only Hardy had written more books along these lines). And, despite describing myself, when asked – which is never – as a Hardy fan, I hadn’t read the book. Of course, I knew about the bit with the sheep, and that shabby, handsome Alan Bates rather paled in comparison to dashing Terence Stamp as they both courted Julie Christie in her luminous prime.

What I didn’t know was that it was positively a rom-com – or, indeed a novel by David Nicholls, who wrote the screenplay – compared to Jude the Obscure. Hardy’s heroine, Bathsheba Everdene is pretty badass for a Victorian era woman, especially in Carey Mulligan’s hands who relishes her character’s rebellious side. She also got to wear some terrific hats after she inherits her uncle’s farm and becomes lady of the manor, not bad for an orphan who we first meet toiling the land on her aunt’s farm in what looks like an H&M denim dress.

On her first day as mistress of the farm, her barn and harvest are saved from a ravishing fire by none other than Gabriel Oak, the shepherd who asked her to marry him in her lowly farm girl days (Gabriel looks like Matthias Schoenaerts so this was Bathsheba’s first mistake). He’s had a run of bad luck (that sheep bit) and is currently homeless and jobless. But his fortuitous fire-fighting skills secure him a job as chief shepherd on Bathsheba’s farm where he is free to look longingly at his mistress.

Bathsheba gains another admirer, her next-door-neighbour, a 40-year-old bachelor farmer, William Boldwood (played by the ever wonderful Michael Sheen). To amuse herself (these were the days before X Factor) Bathsheba sends Boldwood a Valentine’s card as a joke that misfires in typically terrible Hardy fashion. Hardy LOVES a coincidence and he enjoys the tricks that the cruel hand of fate plays on us mortals. For all of Bathsheba’s independence, she’s still a plaything for the gods, and a slave to her own fatal flaw.

Her fatal flaw arrives in the form of Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a redcoat who is recovering from a broken heart after being jilted at the alter. Sturridge’s Frank is one of the haystack-sized holes I mentioned early. He is allegedly 29, but looks like he couldn’t order a pint of Scrumpy without being asked for ID. He’s a good-looking lad, but his Frank lacks the sex appeal that would lead an otherwise strong-willed, independent woman to lose her head (and knickers and farm). To be fair, it’s not really Sturridge’s fault; his Frank is almost a side note, his role cut down to one-dimensional size to fit the restrictions of a 119-minute production. This is a shame, but it’s not disastrous as it gives us more time for sun-tinged scenes of haymaking and broad-shouldered Belgium Schoenaerts making doe-eyes at Bathsheba (some might gripe that Schoenaerts’s Wessex accent is a little, erm, continental, but I’ll let that one go. See aforementioned doe-eyes).

As with all adaptations of classic novels, Vinterberg’s film of Hardy’s 1874 novel is also very much of its own time. David ‘One Day’ Nicholls’s script lifts Hardy’s characteristic gloominess to acceptable 21st century tolerance levels and Cary Mulligan – who largely is excellent – injects the odd modern intonation into some of her carefree pre-marriage dialogue. And, while it may not be a classic, leaving a cinema smiling after a brush with Thomas Hardy is as pleasant as a stroll along a Dorset cliff dusk (mad sheepdog incidents aside).

Far From The Madding Crowd | Released 1st May 2015

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Skylight at Wyndham’s Theatre

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Revived for the first time in a UK theatre since 1997, David Hare’s Skylight is the first of this year’s West End star vehicles, with Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy as the two leads and Stephen Daldry in the director’s chair.

Hare’s play, written before Kensal Rise was colonised by the Queen’s Park latte sipping, yogic overspill (which impinges a bit of some of The Points), is part love story, part political debate. Despite being nearly 20 years old, the themes that run through Skylight resonate more than ever as it showcases the cyclical argument between two sides of the political debate: are we responsible for others – for those worse off in society – or does everyone simply have to look out for themselves? Skylight also runs the gauntlet through guilt, responsibility and love.

Nighy and Mulligan play Tom Sergeant and Kyra Hollis, two former lovers who meet for the first time since the end of their adulterous affair three years ago. The two have vastly different views of the world, but can their love bridge the chasm of political differences?

The play, set exclusive in Kyra’s frigid, sparse flat, opens with her receiving her first guest of the day, Tom’s 18 year-old son Edward (Matthew Beard) bouncing in uninvited and asking her to help heal his father whose spark has left him since the death of his wife Alice, a year ago. Edward is an absolute charm and Beard plays him with an endearing naivety and laconic wit, shadows, we will see, of Nighy’s Tom. Beard’s Edward doesn’t appear again until the end, and such was the impact of his small role, that I rather missed him in the bits in between.

Later, while running a bath, Kyra is interrupted by the blare of her broken intercom announcing the arrival of Tom, and so begins a night of passion, polemics and pasta. Tom is a rich restaurateur with a chauffeur and the beginnings of a chip on his shoulder. He shouldn’t be a likeable man, but Nighy’s innate charm and comic timing ensure that you fall for him. Nighy first played Tom Sergeant back in 1996 and he’s so at home in the role that it’s difficult to see anyone but him as Tom.

Kyra, a middle class solicitor’s daughter who’s living an almost saintly life in penance for her comfortable upbringing, is a teacher in an inner city school in East Ham. She is on the side of the fence that says we are collectively responsible, although Hare doesn’t present her as an angel, after all, she happily had a six year affair with a man while living under the same roof as his wife and two children and admits to not feeling the slightest bit guilty about it. And what of her well meaning motives, is she, as Tom suggests, patronising and misunderstanding of the people she is trying to help?

If this all sounds rather heavy and Issue Driven, it’s not. Skylight is far more fun than that, Hare’s script is full of humour and lightness of touch inbetween the bigger points and it’s delivered on with assurance and wit by the cast.

The living set was a lot of fun, with Nighy and Mulligan being called on to muster all their acting dexterity to actually cook on stage (do not go and see this play on an empty stomach). Watching the actors chop, grate and stir, the tomato sauce bubbling away on the stove while Tom and Kyra trash out their world views, added an extra element of realism while the off-hand cooking disagreements softened the more intense dialogue.

As much as I enjoyed Skylight, I couldn’t help think that in less able actors’ hands, Hare’s script would have been in danger of being overly plummy and self-conscious. That is, of course, part of Hare’s appeal; he writes witty, captivating dialogue that has its roots in realism but is unashamedly heightened and dramatic and as such is full of potential theatrical potholes which a top bill cast like this deftly avoid. Not surprisingly, Nighy is particularly as ease with Hare’s dialogue and his undeniable stage presence rather dominated the duals between him and Mulligan. Mulligan is quietly great, but part of Kyra seems oddly slight, for all her firebrand opinions and self-possession she seems a little slight.

Skylight is an elegantly written and slickly performed play which stirs up some well-worn themes with a fresh voice.

by Suzanne Elliott