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

Book Review: A State of Change by Penelope Gilliatt

A State of Change by Penelope Gilliatt

A State of Change by Penelope Gilliatt

If State of Change were a television programme it would be a prime time BBC Four flagship show, starring a big British name who wanted to prove their acting chops after a successful BBC One cult series. It would have the critics salivating before they’d even seen the preview tapes while, glass of Pinot Noir in hand, the Twitterati would be scratching its head hoping someone will admit to not understanding – or worse – liking – this very well crafted but odd programme – before they have to hint in 140 characters that they would rather be watching EastEnders.

Penelope Gilliatts A State of Change, first published in 1967, is stylish and sleek; it’s also sparse and ephemeral. It feels both dense and lightweight. There is little plot; this is a novel driven by cleverly crafted dialogue, witty bon mots and sharp observations. It reads like a Pinter or a Beckett play – still, yet restless, superficially devoid of meaning, but with each word creaking under the weight of its significance. Gilliatt was once a big literary name: if she were alive today, she would most likely have been among the Women’s Prize for Fiction’s shortlist. She was a hugely versatile writer with a massive brain – according to the lovely introduction to this (badly subbed) Capuchin Classic edition written by the brilliant Ali Smith, Gilliatt was believed to have had a higher IQ than Eistein. She was a journalist and film critic, most notably for The Observer and The New Yorker and she wrote short stories and novels, she even wrote an opera libretto.

She is best remembered best for her Oscar-nominated screenplay for John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. Sadly, Sunday Bloody Sunday aside, Gilliatt is now rather forgotten, her books mostly out of print. She’s probably more remembered for once being married to grumpy old playwright John Osborne. Reading A State of Change it’s easy to see why she has fallen out of favour with modern day literary lovers. It feels very much of its time, but not in that rather twee, rose-tinted way that we seem to prefer our 20th century novels to be. There’s no gripping plot, terrible secret or big reveal. It can be bewildering as characters drift in and out of half-remembered conversations. There are time shifts and sudden dramatic changes that unfold behind the scenes that we, the reader, are never party to. As Ali Smith explains in the introduction, one of Gilliatt’s literary quirks was a “mode of unexplaining”, influenced by the ambiguity of director Jean Renoir’s films.

A State of Change revolves around Kakia who leaves her native Poland after the war for drab, war-damaged London where she meets two friends, Don and Harry who she falls in love with, one after the other. The three of them stay close friends over the years, despite the obvious difficulties. There’s no mud-slinging or 4am whisky-fuelled confessions. We’re never told how each character feels; we are made to draw our own conclusions from their actions and interactions. This seeming randomness, this way of writing that not only reflects real life but also celebrates the beauty of writing beyond a structured beginning, middle and end, is out of step in a world where we demand absolute transparency in everything. But Giliatt deserves a better reception from the 21st century.

A State of Change isn’t a warm book, it’s frosty but fascinating, like a glamorous aloof friend ,and it’s a novel worth digging out if you’re a fan of words and graceful writing.

by Suzanne Elliott