Movies: Far from the Madding Crowd

I watched this movie while flying to London, so I have to consider that it was not the best viewing conditions: small screen, etc. And it's not that I didn't like the movie, but it's clear it probably makes a much better book.

Thing is, I think I read this book as an undergraduate (we had to read a lot of Hardy), but I don't really remember. It all blurs together, and to this day I can only say I know I really didn't like Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Can't tell you a thing about the book itself, only that I hated it when I read it and have thus gone on to block it from memory. This one I don't recall hating, but it also clearly didn't leave much of an impression since I only vaguely remembered while watching the film the name Bathsheba sticking out in my head. Biblical much?

The story, then, is of Bathsheba Everdene (and yes, I did think "Katniss" every time her name was said, even if it's spelled differently), a much sought after independent woman. She is reluctant, however, to give up her freedom to any man. Pretty basic. First farmer Gabriel Oak asks her to marry him, then the wealthy Mr. Boldwood. Both are solid, reliable men, but Bathsheba declines their offers. Instead, she is swept off her feet by Sergeant Francis Toby and loses all her resolutions to remain independent in the face of his charm and boldness.

There is, I think, much that could be said about British reticence as depicted in this film (and book). One overarching theme seems to be that good men will not be flashy or bold. They will stick by you, be patient and persistent, and generally very quiet. They will send you longing looks, and their actions are respectful. These are the men to go for, ladies, this film seems to say. These are the ones who will make you happy in the end.

This message isn't singular to this film, of course, or even to Hardy. One can find similar feelings in Austen and such. But it is interesting to me. Americans, of course, are relatively brash by comparison. We value just the opposite in courtship: flash and pomp.

But Sergeant Toby's flash and boldness doesn't make Bathsheba happy in the end. He runs up gambling debts and puts her farm at risk. And then he meets his first love, who he thought had left him at the altar (she'd accidentally gone to the wrong church), and discovers she's pregnant with his child. But then she dies, and Toby tells Bathsheba he is done with her. He goes out to drown . . . Except not really.

Boldwood has once again asked Bathsheba to marry him, and she must seriously consider it, if only to save her farm. But then Toby returns and demands money, reminding Bathsheba that she is his wife and property . . . and [spoilers!] Boldwood shoots him. Again the lesson is that a good man will protect his woman, will be at her side.

And who has been at Bathsheba's side most constantly? Gabriel Oak, of course. As Boldwood is imprisoned for his crime of passion (but, we're told, will be spared execution), Gabriel gets ready to leave the farm. But then Bathsheba realizes how much she depends on him! And goes after him! Roll credits.

The other lesson worth looking at in this film and book is one that suggests a woman really can't make it on her own. Bathsheba is competent, but still requires men to help her—save her. Gabriel saves her flock of sheep when they become ill, Boldwood saves her from Toby. And Bathsheba's ultimate happiness is still predicated on her relationship with a man. Though, one might argue, at least she comes into the relationship as more of an equal than might be typical for the day and age (1870s).

It's a lean movie, and probably quite lovely when not viewed on a tiny screen with a terrible glare. Still, I feel like I might have gotten more from the book, as if maybe there's a lot of unfilmable thoughts in the prose . . . The movie weirdly starts with a voiceover by Bathsheba that never returns. Since I don't usually like voiceover narration, I'm not sorry, but I don't know if we need even those first few lines. Feels like an odd choice, yet again I wonder what is in the book that creates more feeling than the film is able to? Words really do sometimes work better than pictures.

No comments: