Beautifully rendered but the subject that drives the story – English class distinction – is subsumed by the three suitors’ pursuit of the independent heroine.
I have not read the acclaimed classic novel by Thomas Hardy or saw the 1967 film directed by John Schlesinger.*
Thomas Hardy’s beloved novel was published anonymously in 1874 (with two other extensive revisions in 1895 and 1901). What was – no doubt – central to the novel’s acclaim is something that modern-day audiences cannot relate to. As we all know from our slavish devotion to DOWNTON ABBEY, the English were (and still are) extremely class-conscious. Your regional accent exposes your status and quickly can condemn you.
We cannot understand why educated but penniless orphan Bathsheba Everdone (Carey Mulligan) immediately refuses a marriage proposal from her aunt’s neighbor, ruggedly handsome Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). Bathsheba has come to the countryside to work on her aunt’s farm while hoping to secure a job as a governess.
When Americans think of a governess, we think of THE KING AND I and MARY POPPINS, but in 1874 England, a governess lived in what could be called No Woman’s Land. Their status was semi-menial and their salaries were often much lower than those of cooks. Sometimes women actually paid their employers for the position. The lifestyle of the typical Victorian governess was often one of social isolation and solitude. Her position was often depicted as one to be pitied.
We are shocked when Gabriel, right after meeting Bathsheba, asks her to marry him. He had taken out a loan, leased a thousand acres and stocked a sheep farm. If Bathsheba agrees to marry him, someday he may even be able to buy her a piano. Life was hard and a prolonged courtship of dinners and movies were rather silly.
Bathsheba is quite frank in her reply. She’s too strong-willed, independent, and does not want to marry. She has nothing material to bring to a marriage. He’d be better off with someone else of his social class.
Considering Bathsheba’s options in British society, Gabriel’s interest in her would secure her future and give her the protection of marriage. And, Gabriel is portrayed as a really nice, upstanding man.
This part of England is bereft of women. Every man who glimpses Bathsheba falls madly in love with her. The more Bathsheba tells them she does not want to marry, their passion for her multiplies.
No sooner does Bathsheba turn Gabriel down for being penniless, her uncle dies leaving her a big working farm. Overnight her status changes. She is now mistress with a large staff. She takes to her role with enthusiasm. She’s up before dawn and goes to bed last.
Gabriel has lost his farm and begins working for Mistress Bathsheba. Their roles reverse dramatically. Gabriel is a servant and cannot even approach Bathsheba without lowering his head. She acknowledges the change in their status.
Since Bathsheba has known a life of poverty before inheriting (not earning) the farm, why does she treat Gabriel as a seasonal farm hand? Once he loses his farm he has become unacceptable as a husband? Bathsheba is not really an independent free spirit, she’s a product of her time.
The wealthiest man in the area, awkward and much older William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) is the catch of the village. He has steadfastly dodged all female attention until he sets his eyes on Bathsheba. His initial meeting with Bathsheba is condescending and, as a bit of girlish fun, she sends him an anonymous Valentine’s card. Valentines were very serious instruments of romantic intent in 1874. William considers the card a proposal. So bravely venturing forward, William does the impossible. He attempts to court Bathsheba.
William is desperate for a wife but Bathsheba is now a landowner. Sure, William has a mansion and well-run farm, but Bathsheba does not want to give up her independence, i.e., her unusual power in a man’s world. But she needs help and Gabriel is always there to help her. He’s her poor knight without armor.
Viewing the film from our vantage point, why not marry William? He makes a pleading, begging good case for marriage. Bathsheba can keep her farm as a hobby. There doesn’t even have to be sex! The way she heartlessly dismisses William makes you feel sorry for him.
What can Bathsheba do? We are supposed to applaud her independence in a time when a woman had no legal rights and the role of a “spinster” – even if it is a chosen one – is a disgrace.
One night, patrolling the grounds, Bathsheba meets the dashing Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). He’s beautiful and in his red military uniform. He immediately tells Bathsheba how beautiful she is. In 62 years Frank Troy will emerge as Rhett Butler.
Not only does Bathsheba fall passionately in lust with Frank, she marries him!
It’s a reckless and stupid choice but Frank treats her like a beautiful woman. He has found her flaw. Women need to be desired.
English laws at that time stated that any money made by a woman either through a wage, from investment, by gift, or through inheritance automatically became the property of her husband once she was married. Once a woman became married her property was no longer her own and her husband could choose to dispose of it whenever he thought suitable: “Thus, a woman, on marrying, relinquished her personal property—moveable property such as money, stocks, furniture, and livestock— to her husband’s ownership; by law he was permitted to dispose of it at will at any time in the marriage and could even will it away at death.” Married women had few legal rights and were by law not recognized as being a separate legal being.
With the staff and farm hands assembled, Frank announces he is now their master. Farm work is beneath him. He takes to gambling and starts building up huge debts. But, by law, it’s his money, his farm, and he can sell it if he chooses.
However, Frank quickly realizes he made a mistake. He’s now rich but he is really suffering from a lost love.
Contrary to the Schlesinger version, which according to the billing indicates that the relationship between Bathsheba and Frank was central to the film, here the director, Thomas Vinterberg, makes the relationship between Bathsheba and Gabriel the dominating core of the film.
And the power of love? Well, Frank’s enduring love for his former sweetheart is very touching. He shows that losing a love can destroy a man, but we are supposed to hate him for being a cad. His behavior is totally contradictory to his perceived character.
MADDING CROWD is Mulligan’s film and she expresses her feelings – restricted by the customs of the day – through her expressions and telegraphing the inner workings of her mind. But beautiful? The dream girl of every man she meets? Schoenaerts is perfectly cast. He’s big, strong, and has a quiet charisma.
For what seems to be a complaining review, the film got to me on an emotional level. The skill of the director was apparent, since it was not laid on with a jackhammer.
The entire production is lush and shows how hard it was to survive at that time.
Mulligan, unlike Nicole Kidman in COLD MOUNTAIN (it’s a Civil War period movie and Kidman’s character is working on a farm and near-starving for most of the movie, yet coiffed and with a perfectly made-up face), has a frequently dirty face as she works the land. Her clothes get dirty and her hair is mostly a mess.
Sturridge plays the villainous Frank with the proper amount of exaggerated bad-boy charm. Though I do not recall Sturridge in 2004’s VANITY FAIR, I had only known him as Sienna Miller’s recent husband. He is devilishly handsome. His beauty is similar to the way Reeve Carney is presented as Dorian Gray in PENNY DREADFUL. The only problem is Sturridge is prettier than Mulligan.
*FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD starred Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdone, Terence Stamp as Sgt. Troy, Peter Finch as William Boldwood and Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak. (The cast’s billing order from imdb.com).
Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at email@example.com.