Far from the Maddening Crowd is far from on point

Far From onesheet

Nutshell: A beautifully crafted and acted story, surrounding a thoughtless, self-absorbed lead character that I couldn’t bring myself to care for.  A promising start turns into a de-evolution of the character and a shift of focus from story to proselytizing, switching her personality from independent to insufferable.  The “happy ending” is more of a sigh of relief that this disjointed film is finished.  While fans of the novel may be able to fill in the blanks, first-timers can easily become puzzled by the lack of depth.  Grade: C

I never read Far From the Maddening Crowd in high school — mine was a Hemingway/Shakespeare lovin’ school — but I know the gist.  A woman named Bathsheba Everdeen, no relation Everdene is courted by three suitors as she rises from country girl to farm/estate heiress.  A poor/common man named Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a rich but heart-weary (and a bit over-eager) older man named William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and a soldier that hits her right in the naughty bits, Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge).  Ego, Superego and Id, if you will.  As she tries to stay aloof but come hither “independent”, she struggles.  As does everyone who tries to care about her.  Will true love win in the end?

UGH. It’s never a good sign when I absolutely loathe the main character in a story. She’s Carrie Bradshaw in a corset, with her way of pushing her suitors away but keeping them close enough to tease. Then she marries the very first man who twists her knickers.  Hilarity ensues when Troy isn’t all she thought he’d be cracked up to be. So to recap, Bathy confuses insensitivity with independence, at least ’til she finds someone she wants to bang.  Then it’s all hail marriage!  But all the menfolk want her…hey; is this the world’s first Mary Sue?

Okay, so at the beginning of the film she’s actually pretty interesting.  Her reasons for saying no to Gabriel make sense; she fears he won’t be able to tame her, and that he’ll come to resent her.  Valid points.  But as soon as she inherits her uncle’s (formerly her parent’s) farm, she becomes insensitive to those who woo her, and downright unkind.  I lay the blame at the feet of David Nicholls, who also penned the insufferable One Day.  I assume, as with One Day, that Nicholls decided to gloss over character development and instead go for Big Deep Meanings.  That mean nothing without character development.  Ah, the circle of life!  Or something.

What bothered me the most was my animosity towards Bathsheba, especially after such a lovely, Princess Bride-esque beginning of the film.  As soon as she moves to the estate though?  She’s foul. She knows that Boldwood has been hurt in the past.  So?  Send him a Valentine’s Day card just for giggles!  When he proposes?  Don’t turn him down flat, string him along with the possibility of mulling it over…and the dump him the night you run off to marry someone else!  And do keep making goo-goo eyes at Gabriel while telling everyone you know – whenever he’s in earshot – that being with him is impossible now.  Ick. She gets her happy ending though. So what have we learned, kids? Disregard others, and good things will happen to you. What a glorious message!

The scenery is beautiful though. As is the costuming, with extra kudos for getting the class-level right.  There’s plenty of calico, tweed, and serge de Nîmes (aka denim), with a bit of leather thrown in.  I was lusting after Bathsheba’s leather jacket and denim dress.  And director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) manages to deliver touching moments whenever the upstairs/downstairs folk come together.  (That’s probably also due to Nina Gold and Theo Park in the casting department for selecting folks that click together so well.)  Scenes of pastoral life – especially the scene where Gabriel is woken by a horrible twist of fate – are sheer perfection.  Too bad the central character just didn’t do it for me.

This film does seem to be getting huge kudos on the usual critic roundup sites.  So perhaps fans of the story filled in the narrative blanks that left me scratching my head.  Still, Far From the Maddening Crowd left me staring at characters rather than connecting with them.  I know it’s rough going when the biggest connection I muster up is with those poor country sheep.

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