by Alvin G. Burstein
This 2015 movie, like the novel by Thomas Hardy with the same name, is titled with a quotation from Thomas Graves’ Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray,
Along the cool sequester’d way of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
Graves’ reference to the gloom and finitude embodied in the graveyard locale implies a superiority to another way of living characterized by hub-hub both physical and spiritual.
Hardy’s novel, enlarging on the allusive title, like most of his work, idealizes rustic living close to nature, while recognizing the harsh and confining nature of the place and time in which his stories are situated. Ironically and effectively the sparse environments seem to highlight the drama and complexity of the human relations embedded there. Graves’ “noiseless tenor” only emerges as a contrived happy ending.
The movie remains true to much of the Hardyesque genre. The male protagonist, Gabriel Oak, is the personification of integrity allied to hard work and perseverance. He is unrealistically flawless, reminiscent of the laborers in Communist Russian posters of the 1930’s. He is in love with Bathsheba Everdene, impulsive, flighty and proud, who, as her biblical name connotes, is the irresistible object of male desire. She is pursued not only by Gabriel, but also by the morally shallow, but dashingly good looking Sergeant Troy as well as by Boldwood, a wealthy, inhibited older neighbor who wants to protect her.
The stage is set for testosterone saturated male rivalries with their Oedipal overtones. They take a lethal turn when the older Boldwood kills the soldier while protecting Bathsheba.
There are even darker overtones, turns of fortune, that derive from Hardy’s sensitivity to the harsher elements of life. A former lover of Troy’s dies in childbirth and is buried with her stillborn infant. Boldwood, killing Troy, becomes, not a respected landowner, but a convicted murderer.
An unexpected psychoanalytic depth in Hardy’s story, to which the film is faithful, is its attention to what Freud called Ananke, fate, after the Greek mythic figure that even the Gods could not master. The founder of psychoanalysis is best known for his attention to unconscious motivation in derailing conscious intentions—the celebrated Freudian slips. However, Freud also called our attention to the role of non-psychological factors in frustrating human intentions and shaping human lives. His characterization of anatomy as destiny has stirred controversy in the debates about gender roles, but resonates with emerging views of sexual determination.
Somewhat less controversial is his argument in The Future of an Illusion that religious views are rooted in to human feeling of helplessness in the face of mortality and natural disasters, our confrontations with Ananke.
In Hardy’s story and in the movie, events are critically shaped by random chance, unchosen events, an element of Ananke. Gabriel Oak is initially attracted to Bathsheba when she saves his life from an accidental nighttime fire while he was sleeping. Gabriel loses his flock of sheep when a fence gives way during a storm, and he is forced off his land and forced to seek employment by Bathsheba. Bathsheba, barely knowing Boldwood, sends him a valentine as a prank when a book falls open by chance. Sergeant Troy’s bride to be goes to the wrong church. That eventuates in his attraction to Bathsheba, as well as the latter’s horrifying disillusionment in Troy. Chance, Ananke, shapes their lives.
I think the spectacular cinematic beauty of the movie distracted from rather than highlighted its darker elements, diminishing its Hardyesque quality. In addition, Carey Mulligan’s perky little grin in her portrayal of Bathsheba for me became an annoying mannerism.
On the whole, though, I found Far From The Madding Crowd a film that provoked thought as well as stirring feeling, a film well worth seeing.
It makes me wonder why people bother. The original wasn’t perfect (Julie Christie was a controversial choice at the time, and her 1960s make-up didn’t help) but how has this new version improved on it in any way? And despite a couple of good performances – you can’t go wrong with Michael Sheen – the casting of Gabriel Oak seems odd in the extreme.