Thursday, May 14, 2015

Feminism and Far From the Madding Crowd

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature for almost twenty years in a row in the early 1900s but like Tolstoy, he never won it. Yet his novels continue to be read and made into movies, while those honored by the Swedish Academy during that period remain mostly unknown. (Rabindranath Tagore, the 1913 laureate, is an exception.) Can anyone name a book by the Spanish writer Jacinto Bonavente, winner in 1922 when Hardy was also a nominee?


The movie version of Far From the Madding Crowd playing in theaters now offers a hint to Hardy’s relevance. Written in 1874, the novel is about an audacious, free-thinking young woman named Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), an anomaly in her time who tells her shepherd suitor Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), “I don’t want to be another man’s property.” This is her response to Gabriel after he tries to win her over with, “I have 100 acres and 200 sheep.”
Land and sheep were the quintessential symbols of affluence in 19th-century England but they made no impression on a feminist determined to chart her own course.
How inspired would people around the world be if an Afghan woman could use the same words to a proposal by a wealthy landlord in 21st-century Afghanistan!

This is the second time Far From the Madding Crowd is getting the cinematic treatment. The first was in 1967, directed by John Schlesinger and featuring Julie Christie, Terrence Stamp and Alan Bates. Christie’s Bathsheba was more fiery and temperamental although the movie was slower-paced, but Mulligan’s is closer to the book, no less fiery but tempered by a touch of the vulnerable and the tragic.

When penniless Bathsheba inherits a farm from her deceased uncle, she becomes wealthy and free from the daily grinds of earning a living. Gabriel, on the other hand, loses his sheep after a catastrophe hits his farm and ends up as the manager of Bathsheba’s estate. He still nurtures his love for her but Bathsheba is indifferent. “I am too independent for you,” she informs him. All commerce and purpose, she is determined to take her inherited fortune to the next level, and declares to her farm hands, “It is my intention to astonish you all.”

Dependable Gabriel throws himself into his work, grazing sheep, growing grain and keeping the farm not merely solvent but profitable. (Schoenaerts’s brooding Gabriel reminds one of Alain Delon and Steve McQueen but it will require years of honing before he reaches their level.)
Bathsheba is in control of her destiny, or so she thinks. As she gallops across the plains of Wessex on her horse, she evokes the image of her kindred spirit, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, separated by a mere half century. From Wessex in England to Tara in Georgia is but a single leap of imagination.

A Valentine’s Day prank Bathsheba plays on her wealthy neighbor reduces the proud William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) into a whining lover. “I can offer you shelter and comfort,” he tells her but Bathsheba is both candid and ruthless in her response: “I have no need for a husband.” “You have to admire my persistence,” Boldwood insists. “If you will marry me out of guilt and pity … I don’t mind!”
Lovelorn Boldwood is losing his senses. “I seem to cry a lot these days, someone who has never cried before!” he laments.

Something unexpected has to happen.

Enter Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), a vain and shallow Sergeant whose scarlet uniform is as revealing of his superficiality as his lust for gambling and pleasure. (It is easy to dislike Sturridge the moment he shows up in the story. Whether it is due to good acting or bad is difficult to tell.)
Bathsheba melts as he tells her she is the most beautiful woman he ever saw, raising that ancient question: Why do bright and beautiful women fall for rogues and lowlifes? Hardy is suggesting perhaps that virtue is inevitably drawn to vice, as moth to flame.

Gabriel warns Bathsheba. Troy is not worthy of you. He will ruin you. It will be a terrible mistake if you marry him.

But that tryst with the sergeant in the fern-filled woods and his passionate kiss has turned Bathsheba irrational.

Disillusionment comes soon after the hasty marriage. Troy gambles most of Bathsheba’s money away. He has become used to her charms and is bored. One day he finds his former love begging at a village fair. He was set to marry her but the wedding came asunder when Fanny Robin ended up at the wrong church on the day of the wedding. (Make a mistake in finding your church and your life falls apart? Surely a weakness in the plot.)
Troy deserts Bathsheba.

Gabriel nurses his sorrow in silence even as he occasionally smolders but Boldwood is devastated by Bathsheba’s impetuous, reckless decisions.

The moment of truth arrives for Bathsheba when Gabriel saves the farm almost single-handedly before a storm can destroy it. As the scales fall from her eyes, she begins
to understand the value of loyalty and the meaning of love.

When Troy suddenly reappears in Bathsheba’s life, Boldwood takes the law into his hand and does what he must to save the woman for whose love he is willing to sacrifice everything.

Bathsheba is a changed woman by now, battered by a love rectangle created by forces beyond her control. She has seen too much and suffered too much, yet she knows this:
She will not let the man whose love for her never wavered leave for distant shores. She is determined to redeem herself.

And so she does.

Director Thomas Vinterberg has done a fine enough job with his cast but his best claim to fame may lie in the guts he has shown in bringing a 19th-century classic yet again to the screen, knowing full-well it will never be a blockbuster. It is worth retelling a great story, the Director seems to be telling the Hollywood hit-hunters, even if the box office returns merely cover the expenses. For this principled stand, he deserves our thanks.

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