I Am Independent
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”
-Thomas Hardy, Far From the Madding Crowd
Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel was shocking in many ways for its time, most of which relate to how exceedingly strong the story’s protagonist Bathsheba Everdeen is. Played beautifully by Carey Mulligan, Bathsheba is fiercely independent, operating her own farm business with nary a damn given to whatever the men of town have to say about that, or the women for that matter. While functioning in essence as a Victorian era love story, Madding Crowd has an aura that is reminiscent of Jane Austen. The multiple suitors are all there, each played to varying degrees of effectiveness by Matthis Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, and Tom Sturridge, respectively and if the film suffers from a specific weakness, it’s that very effectiveness. The endeavor, however, entirely belongs to Mulligan in a fine performance that might get overlooked because of her buzzier role in the upcoming drama Suffragette. She embodies Bathsheba with a ferocity that even the more famous Everdeen cannot match. From the moment you see her, there’s a defining streak of not abiding by the usual societal norms that women often found themselves bound by. She resists every marriage proposal, worried not that she will be frowned upon the society about her but instead resistant to the idea of becoming, as she states, someone’s property.
There was little freedom to be found for women in the Victorian era, especially where matters of romance were concerned. But Bathsheba held her own and the one time she followed through convention and did indeed get married, what she found was the realization of her own worst fears. At the beginning of the film she dryly notes how many found her to be far too independent and the moment where she realizes that in one instance of following tradition, she found herself crying a great deal where before she couldn’t recall crying at all. As her dearest confidante Maryann notes, this is a world where it is a luxury to have a choice. Bathsheba is perfectly aware of the option that she not being an option that society allows at all, which is why she clings to her independence all the more fiercely. When she inherits her uncle’s farm, she feels a great deal of responsibility to show the world that she didn’t need to follow orthodoxy in order to fulfill her life. She has a choice, that luxury, and she intends on never giving it up. “It is my intention to astonish you all,” she noted fastidiously and she meant every syllable of it.
Casual sexism has been entrenched in society since the dawn of civilization, underscoring the irony that the prevailing theory is that women invented the revolutionary concept of agriculture that allowed humanity to settle in a singular area and create a civilization to begin with. Intentional sexism is of course prevalent throughout the entire affair, but in many ways it’s the casual sexism that becomes inherently entrenched in societal functions and is far more difficult to root out. It’s the moment when one of her farm workers automatically jumps to “sir” instead of “ma’am.” It’s evident when Bathsheba and Maryann go to the market to sell her grain and all of the men in suits simply stare at the two of them. Bathsheba is fully aware of the reaction, but she doesn’t give two hoots. She simply sets up her grain, waiting for the customers to arrive. She’s a tricky bargainer, too. A former client of her uncle’s sees her wares and for a moment thinks that he can simply get the grain for nearly half price but Bathsheba doesn’t relent. A small smile plays across her face as he at last relents. It’s perhaps a small victory in the grand scheme of things, but it’s an important one, nevertheless.
At its heart (pun intended), Madding Crowd is a feminist love story. Bathsheba is courted by three separate suitors, each representing a different class of society. Schoenaerts’s Gabriel Oak is the self-made man who has lost everything and finds that by societal standards, he is no longer considered worthy of Miss Everdene’s hand. Schoenaerts is largely excellent in the role, but there are a few moments where it feels less like he’s expressing genuine emotion and more like he’s trying to convince the audience that what Gabriel is expressing is genuine emotion. Sturridge arrives as Sergeant Frank Troy, a not-so-gallant gallant soldier in the English army whose character serves to repudiate society’s emphasis that only a decent marriage can make a woman’s life worth living. The script tries to give him some shades of sympathy, but his plot with Juno Temple’s Fanny Robin never pans out in a believable manner and his facial hair only serves to distract from the understanding that in about half of his scenes, his face is more rigid than a metal pole at the corner of an intersection. Sheen as the noble, middle-aged spinster next door fills the role of the aristocracy, noting somberly that his lack of a companion at his age had made a mockery out of him in town. His performance is hands down the best of the three, matching Mulligan’s ferocity with an equivalent wit.
There are a couple of quibbles in the film that prevent it from reaching its absolute potential outside of some performance issues. The voiceover at the beginning is absolutely unnecessary, the camerawork at times is a bit shaky for no apparent reason, and the subplot with Fanny could have been entirely excised for the sake of narrative convenience. But what director Thomas Vinterberg brings to the adaptation of Hardy’s famed work is a beautiful blend of melancholia, steadfast optimism, and romantic authenticity that somehow never comes across as being truly contradictory. Craig Armstrong’s string-heavy score is hauntingly dazzling, giving the entire affair an emotional heft that certain scenes otherwise may lack. Charlotte Bruus Christensen may very well be the film’s co-champion with Mulligan. Her cinematography is simply stunning, most notably in the wide shots of the countryside that is imbued with a vastness that manages to convey a strange intimacy seemingly effortlessly. David Nicholls smartly focuses the book’s narrative on Bathsheba and it is notable that the film suffers the most when she isn’t on screen. Far From the Madding Crowd may at the surface appear to be a typical period romance, but its fierce commitment to Bathsheba fulfilling her obligations to herself over society make it anything but.
Title: Far From the Madding Crowd
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg
Produced by: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich
Written by: David Nicholls
Based On: Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple
Music by: Craig Armstrong
Cinematography: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Edited by: Claire Simpson
Production Company: DNA Films
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Dates: 1 May 2015 (UK/USA)
Image Courtesy: The Guardian