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

Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson inhabits a world entirely of his own, where real life is amplified and sprinkled with magic dust as we’re taken on a journey into his wonderful imagination.

Anderson’s had a few wobbles recently, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is up there with his best – some would say (me) that it is his best. It’s utterly joyful despite the darkness that loiters in its shadows. It’s both hugely funny and quietly sad and never less than spell-bindingly charming.

Fittingly for a director who creates his own filmic world, The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in a fictional central European country, the Republic of Zubrowka, shortly before the Second World War (to continue the non-specific location, the encroaching Nazis are replaced by unnamed fascists).

The film is a triumph of storytelling even if the story being told is fairly slight. It begins with a  girl paying homage to the statue of The Author before picking up the unnamed writer’s memoir of his visit to the Grand Budapest Hotel in the early 1960s. We are then transported back to 1982, where The Author (a stonking five minutes with the always brilliant Tom Wilkinson) is grappling with this very book.

His reminiscences take us back to the visit to the now shabby Grand Budapest Hotel that inspired the book. The once palatial hotel is now tatty and largely empty, it’s decor peeling and its stately rooms resounding with the silence of the handful of lonely, solo guests that wander wordlessly through them.

Intrigued by the hotel’s decline, The Author (who back in the 1960s looked a lot like Jude Law) meets the owner, the melancholy Zero Mustafa in the once majestic Turkish Baths and over a three course meal in the hotel’s cavernous dining room The Author – and us – learn the story of the decline of Grand Budapest Hotel as Zero takes us back to the 1930s where where we meet M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and a young Zero (played brilliantly by newcomer Tony Revolori).

Ralph Fiennes, an actor I rarely find palatable (admittedly because he’s usually playing a sadistic bastard) is absolutely wonderful as Monsieur Gustave, the fey, flawed, but big-hearted concierge, a role he performs with perfumed military precision.

He’s a standout star in a film brimming with a cast of characters. There’s Tilda Swinton as M. Gustave’s 82-year-old lover whose death throws the concierge and his new recruit, Zero (who in 1932 was a fledgling lobby boy)  into the path of the silent, but deadly JG Jopling (Willem Dafoe) and a very angry Adrien Brody as her son Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis. Along the way we also encounter Harvey Keitel‘s naked torso, a priceless painting, a spell in jail and, of course, Bill Murray.

Anderson flirts with whimsy, but crucially The Grand Budapest Hotel is too funny and too clever to stray into twee territory. There’s also an aura of sadness and moments of violence that imbue the film with a weightiness that its jauntiness may at first disguise.

The film is beautifully shot, the elegance and symmetry of the hotel and the snowy mountains provide plenty of scope for sweeping panoramas that are interspersed Anderson’s trademark tight facials close-ups. The smudged, muted colours give the film a nostalgic feel and the four eras we move through are largely visually interchangeable. Stories, after all, don’t have a time frame.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Summer in February by Jonathan Smith

*SPOILER ALERT*

What is it about the beginning of the 20th century that fascinates us so much right now? From Downton Abbey’s first two series, to Parade’s End and the recent television production of Birdsong, those late Edwardian years seem to be the era of choice for TV writers. Do those last years of a fragile world, shattered by the First World War, resonate with our own uncertain times? Maybe in the face of so much unknown, we’re fascinated by those years of contentment giving way to such horrors? Or perhaps it’s simply the rather fabulous frocks and clipped accents?

Jonathan Smith’s 1910s based Summer in February pre-dates our current Edwardian-obsession and has now been adapted into a film, set to be released early next year, starring Dan ‘cousin Matthew’ Stevens and Dominic Cooper. It might share a timeframe with other recent cultural highlights, but Summer in February isn’t simply a tale of posh people in big houses bracing themselves for the end of the world as they know it; it’s a tale of the extraordinary, ordinary people that made up the Lamorna artist community, led by artist and horse lover Alfred ‘AJ’ Munnings.

The book opens with Munnings making his famous final speech as Chairman of the Royal Academy. He gives a damning, if rather incoherent, diatribe on modern art, before stumbling on a word that transports him back thirty years when, as a young artist he moved to Lamorna in Cornwall and became part of the larger group of Newlyn School of artists. The son of a Suffolk farmer, Munnings rather belly-flops into this quiet community, demanding everyone looks up from their easels and pay attention to him – which they duly do.

His attention, meanwhile, is drawn to the beautiful Florence ‘Blote’ Carter-Wood whose resemblance to Botticelli’s Venus mesmerises him and it’s not long before she soon goes from his model and muse to his wife. But the partnership that works so well on canvas doesn’t translate into real life and the marriage is a catastrophic disaster from day one.

And the reason? While AJ may demand our attention, at the heart of this novel (he even gets his own first-person chapter) is Major Gilbert Evans, local landowner Colonel Paynter’s (although he’s not one) land agent. A gentle foil to Alfred, he’s a quietly magnetic figure – and we’re not the only ones drawn to him, he’s already stolen Blote’s heart before she agreed to marry Alfred, himself equally dependent on his new friend.

Gilbert – or ‘Ev’ as he’s known to AJ – is the opposite of the bullish, boisterous Munnings – quiet, gentle, sensitive and selfless – he too falls head-over-heels in love with Florence. He is heartbroken at being passed over for Munnings and attempts to retreat from the newly engaged couple only to be drawn back into their lives when it becomes apparent to Blote, and Alfred, that they can’t survive – quite literally in Florence’s case – without him in their lives.

Rather than keeping her at arms length, Gilbert, ever the gentleman, takes Blote under his (outwardly) brotherly-like arm at Alfred’s request. For a while this love-triangle remains chaste with an uneasy, unspoken truce between Blote and Gilbert, until Gilbert, at breaking point, makes the decision to flee his agonising situation and accepts a job offer in Nigeria. His decision is the catalyst Florence needs, and in their few precious remaining weeks, the pair embark on a passionate love affair.

In addition to the three lovebirds, there’s a lively host of other characters including artist (Dame) Laura Knight and her quiet, but all-seeing, husband, Harold. The wild Cornish coast and the quirks, obsessions and passions of the community are beautifully, understatedly drawn by Jonathan Smith. He’s not an elaborate writer, his prose is economical and precise, but with a beauty and richness that belies his simple style. He evokes the crashing waves of the Atlantic, the prickling sweat on a unnaturally hot February day and Gilbert’s heavy heart so wonderfully that you can almost taste the salty sea water (or maybe that was my tears at Gilbert’s predicament).

The one character that remains as two-dimensional (I believe intentionally so) as a painting is Florence. What we know of her, we know through the eyes of the two men in her life. At first she seems like another privileged idle woman, but through her early sittings with Alfred and later meetings with Gilbert, we get glimpses of the woman behind the paintings, but she still largely remains an enigma, a beautiful figure on horseback sat passively in the dappled shade. We hear nothing of her thoughts or feelings. We never learn why she chose Alfred over Gilbert only to then regret her decision so suddenly and with such gruesome results.

I don’t think Florence’s ephemeral nature is a failing on Smith’s part to draw her, I think he’s making a point that she was an almost powerless woman in a time when female voices were silenced, even upper class ones. And Blote isn’t just a pawn in a man’s world, she’s also trapped and controlled by her mind that will ultimately destroy her.

Summer in February is one of those books that you want to buy all your friends copies of. It’s beautiful, haunting, powerful and, at times, very funny, book about fascinating people in a fascinating time.

by Suzanne Elliott

Summer in February is reissued on 23 May 2013, £8.99 from Waterstones.