Far from the Madding Crowd
Directed By: John Schlesinger
Starring: Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, Peter Finch, Alan Bates
Far from the Madding Crowd is a faithful cinematic adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel concerning a romantic "quadrangle" surrounding young Bathsheba Everdene (Christie) that spans several years. Bathsheba is first awkwardly courted by industrious young shepherd Gabriel Oak (Bates), who she rebukes deeming him unworthy due to his low station. Years later, Gabriel has fallen on hard times after losing his flock in a terrible (but cinematically spectacular) accident and finds employment on a farm which he is surprised to discover is being run by Bathsheba. She has inherited it and a modest amount of wealth as the sole heir of her deceased Uncle. Bathsheba acquires a second suitor when she irresponsibly sends an ironic Valentine to her neighbor, a wealthy bachelor farmer named William Boldwood (Finch). This inflames a constant passion in Boldwood that borders on the obsessive as he repeatedly presses for Bathsheba to either accept his proposal of marriage or refuse him outright while she plays things coyly. Boldwood is ultimately humiliated when Bathsheba instead falls for a dashing young Calvary sergeant named Francis Troy (Stamp). Sergeant Troy proves to be more interested in reveling and gambling than running a farm, and events come to a head when his caddish past comes back to haunt him.
John Schlesinger's Far from the Madding Crowd is a somewhat underrated gem of 1960s cinema. I actually prefer it by quite a large margin to Julie Christie's previous much more commercially successful turn at epic romantic drama, [i]Doctor Zhivago[i/]. Frederick Raphael's screenplay hews closely to the novel, but lends itself to the cinematic medium with ample opportunities for elements of the story to be carried through imagery and actors' unspoken expressions. The limited, insulated, world of the film's rural setting, an important element of the novel as suggested by its title, is established firmly without any dialog or character discussion of the subject.
The Nicolas Roeg cinematography squeezes absolutely every drop of production value available from the Dorset locations. While it is uniformly spectacular with one beautifully composed and lit image after another, I was slightly put-off by what seemed like an overuse of handheld POV shots. The film is quite well edited as well. One scene, which is straight out of the novel, where Sergeant Troy demonstrates his skill at swordplay to Bathsheba has a lot of intercutting and feels like it was assembled after a lot of experimentation. I am not sure it was entirely successful, but the cutting of this sequence by Schlesinger and Malcolm Cooke seemed influential on how Roeg would assemble his own films when he moved to the director's chair shortly after lensing this film.
As technically assured as the film's production is, its greatest strength is its cast. Peter Finch gives my favorite performance of the film, gradually suggesting the accumulation of damage to his ego over years of rejection while still being completely believable as a savvy entrepreneurial farm owner. Terence Stamp hits all of the right notes as the caddish sergeant who is far from admirable, but still strangely sympathetic. My only superficial qualm is an observation that Stamp and I have something in common: neither one of us can make a moustache work properly. Alan Bates, in what was at the time a rugged and ruddy change of pace from his previous roles, provides a noble, sympathetic entry point for the viewer, as well as a rooting interest. Julie Christie anchors the film as the object of all of their affection, moving from a casual unawareness of the affect of her coyness on the limited number of eligible men around her to a deep regret of the destructive powers she unleashed so casually.
Note: This film is frequently presented with edits censoring a cockfighting scene shortly after the film's intermission on grounds of animal cruelty. This R1 DVD prevents the film in its uncut roadshow presentation, inclusive of Overture, Entr'Acte, and uncensored cockfighting scene. Viewers squeamish about such things should be aware that animals were certainly harmed in the making of this movie.
The film's beautiful widescreen cinematography is rendered almost perfectly by this 16:9 enhanced widescreen presentation. Natural film grain is present but not excessive, compression artifacts are mild and nearly invisible from a reasonable viewing distance, and video realm high contrast edge ringing is not an issue. I did notice some very mild glowing halos along some high contrast edges, but they occurred during opticals and process shots and are likely artifacts of the film itself rather than its port to the digital video domain. The film's earthy tones are rendered effectively with occasional bold slashes of color such as Sergeant Troy's uniform and the curtains in Bathsheba's home rendered solidly with no chroma issues.
The only audio option is a Dolby Digital 5.1 English track. The surround channels are hardly ever utilized (as was likely the case with the film's theatrical mix), although they do come into play as a special effect in a few sequences such as one from the point of view of a drunken man driving a cart. Fidelity is quite good, with clear dialog, occasional wide stereo effects across the front channels, and a fine rendering of the music score which mixes variations on Richard Rodney Bennett's mournful main theme with numerous folk songs. Whether a remix or a repurposing of the original theatrical mix, this is a well balanced, subtle, and effective sound presentation.
The only included extra is the film's theatrical trailer presented in 4:3 letterboxed video.
Somewhat curiously for a catalog title, when the disc is first spun-up, the viewer is greeted with a skippable promotional trailer for Warner Blu-Ray discs. It runs one minute and nine seconds and is presented in 4:3 letterboxed video with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. There is, unfortunately, nothing in the promo suggesting this title will appear on that format.
The film is packaged in a standard Amaray case with no inserts.
John Schlesinger's underrated adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd makes its much belated DVD debut with minimal extras, but an outstanding digital representation of the well acted film that does justice to its carefully constructed cinematography and sound mix.