What arthouse film would possess the temerity to go up against a blockbuster behemoth like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” on the opening weekend of the summer movie season?
How about “Far From the Madding Crowd,” a sumptuous romantic period piece that stars talented English beauty Carey Mulligan—on a roll with a hit show currently on Broadway (“Skylight”) and a potential Oscar contender (“Suffragette”) on the big screen this fall—as one of the most fascinating free-spirited literary heroines to ever grace a bookshelf?
In fact, the willfully independent Bathsheba Everdene is held in such high regard that badass warrior Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games” has the honor of sharing her surname.
Mulligan, the 29-year-old Oscar nominee for 2009’s “An Education” who previously earned her highbrow summer counter-programming stripes as Daisy opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in 2013’s “The Great Gatsby,” has her best acting showcase yet as British author Thomas Hardy’s proto-feminist character.
“The Avengers“ sequel might boast the likes of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. But the actress is backed by her own impressive assemblage, a trio of Victorian-era male suitors vying for her attention: Matthias Schoenaerts (“Rust and Bone,” “The Drop”) as steadfast sheep herder Gabriel Oaks, Tom Sturridge (“On the Road,” “Effie Gray”) as seductive Sgt. Troy and Michael Sheen (“The Queen,” “The Twilight Saga”) as lonely man of means William Bollwood.
But this adaptation of the 1874 novel, about a single young woman who rises to the challenge of overseeing her late uncle’s farm while proving her worth to those in her patriarchal community, finds itself standing in the shadow of another film.
Namely, the 1967 version of “Far From the Madding Crowd” that starred a 27-year-old Julie Christie, the It girl of ‘60s British cinema after winning an Oscar for 1965’s “Darling.” The book also was the basis of a 1915 silent film, a 1998 TV movie and a 2010 contemporary comedy directed by Stephen Frears titled “Tamara Drewe.” But the ’67 release is the one film buffs recall most fondly.
Just as that nearly three-hour spectacle, complete with overture and intermission, reflected the tenor of the times, so too does the 21st-century model, which comes in at a relatively swift two hours. Let’s do some “Crowd” control and see how each interpretation fares when stacked up against each other.
1967 – Both Roger Ebert and Bosley Crowther in gave the pastoral epic mixed ratings. Ebert was ultimately dismissive, stating that Christie was “too sweet and superficial, and so is the film.” Crowther railed against its “antiquated narrative form” and “the dullness of the character revelations.” The film did solid box office in the UK but failed to stir much passion among U.S. moviegoers back although its rep has since grown.
2015 – Reviews so far suggest that the film could have benefited from an expanded running time since it tends to barrel through events in the second half. But much praise has been lavished upon Mulligan’s performance. Raves The Guardian: “Her face has a pinched girlish prettiness combined with a shrewd, slightly schoolmistress-y intelligence. … Her Bathsheba is well turned-out with an impressive line in hats; she is a horsewoman and very keen on rough shooting, not activities that much interested Julie Christie, who was almost ethereally beautiful and fancy-free in the part.”
1967 – “Madding Crowd” was a rare period-piece foray for British director John Schlesinger. He began his movie career with so-called “kitchen-sink dramas” such as 1963’s “Billy Liar” before creating a sensation with his of-the-moment capturing of the amoral malaise of swinging London with 1965’s “Darling.” He would enter the top tier of filmmakers with 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy,” which won Oscars for best picture and director.
2015 – Similarly, Danish director Thomas Vintner is going outside his comfort zone with a rather straight-forward and intimate romance based on a 18th-century British novel. The co-founder of the Dogme 95 minimalist movement is best known for 1998’s “The Celebration” and 2012’s “The Hunt,” an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film.
1967 – Hardy regularly uses the forces of nature to echo the emotional state of his characters, and cinematography is a key storytelling tool in both adaptations. But this version prefers to focus on the murk and muck of the rural countryside, including wallows in post-rain mud. Director of photography Nicholas Roeg, who would go on to leave an indelible stamp on ‘70s cinema as a director (“Walkabout,” “Don’t Look Now,” “The Man Who Fell to Earth”), preferred an earthy palate and was not averse to camera tricks, such as when the image collapses around the drunken driver of a cart carrying a coffin.
2015 – Threatening clouds gather, sunsets burst forth with a butterscotch glow and snow lends an uneasy frostiness during the scene where Boldwood prematurely throws an engagement party. But even though both films were shot in Dorset, a county in southwest England that inspired Hardy’s fictional area of Wessex, this new version is much more sun-dappled and even decorates the blue sky with an arching rainbow at one point. Director of photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen, one of Vinterberg’s regular collaborators, goes for a brighter country setting.
Bathsheba’s Fashion Sense:
1967— With shoulder-length blonde hair that is more Carnaby Street than 19th-century rustic and a pallor that bespeaks of the ‘60s trend in white Yardley lipstick, Christie’s wardrobe seesaws between peasant girl and fussy aristocrat, depending on her social status at the time. Probably her statement piece would be the white frock she wears when Stamp’s Sgt. Troy in his scarlet-and-black uniform puts on a rather suggestive sword-fighting demonstration for Bathsheba.
2015 – From the first scene, Mulligan knocks it out of the park – or the woods – with the buttery-brown leather riding jacket she dons while galloping on her steed. Her rather youthful farm girl dresses in various shades of flattering blue, including a denim one for dirtier chores, might be even more attractive than the fancier duds she dons when she becomes a landowner. As for her often-tousled reddish-brunette hair that cascades down her back, it is much more convincing that Christie’s anachronistic locks.
The Hottest of the Three Would-Be Suitors:
1967 – With his piercing bedroom eyes, come-hither mustache and a leering grin, Stamp’s Sgt. Troy doesn’t even have to break a sweat to be an object of desire as the man who awakens Bathsheba’s latent lust. He might be cruel, crude and arrogant, but a good bad boy is often hard to resist. The role sent Stamp’s celebrity stock soaring, especially since he and Christie became a real-life couple (immortalized in the lyrics of the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset”). Meanwhile, Alan Bates – who has been known to make hearts flutter – is stuck in a “just-friends” role as the selfless Gabriel, who is forever getting Bathsheba out of a jam. His come-on line to her is like something your grandfather would say: “At home by the fire, whenever I look up, there you will be. And whenever you look up, there I shall be.” As for Finch’s Boldwood, even when he falls for Bathsheba’s thoughtless Valentine’s Day joke, he maintains some semblance of macho pride — until Sgt. Troy enters the picture.
2015 – The biggest switch from the earlier film is that, with Schoenaerts in the role, farmhand Gabriel Oaks is quite the rough-hewn hunk– even if Bathsheba doesn’t initially get what makes her MVP employee so special until the very end. Vinterberg actually allows occasional sparks to fly between the two in between performing their agricultural duties. Gabriel also lives up to his guardian angel moniker as he tries to force Bathsheba to be true to herself in between coming to the rescue of her property on several occasions. But a stronger Gabriel leads to a weaker Sgt. Troy, and Sturridge’s stunted part doesn’t allow him enough room to even come close to matching Stamp’s macho grandstanding. Still, he is quite good when Troy and Bathsheba initially encounter one another in the darkened woods and he says to her, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a face as beautiful as yours.” And when Mulligan as Bathsheba blushingly admits, “I’ve never been kissed” before submitting to his lips. Meanwhile, Sheen’s tender and tortured Boldwood nearly steals the show as he painfully devotes himself to attempting to convince an unimpressed Bathsheba to be his bride by wowing her with his material goods.
Bathsheba’s Rejection of Gabriel’s First Proposal:
1967 – With women’s liberation still in its infancy, Christie’s headstrong Bathsheba often seems more fickle than determined in her choices. When Gabriel asks her to marry him, she basically scoffs at the notion while blurting out, “Sorry, I don’t love you a bit.”
2015 – Mulligan’s Bathsheba exhibits much more self-knowledge and conviction as she rejects Gabriel’s offer of matrimony. “If I ever were to marry, I would want someone to tame me – and you’d never be able to do it.” When she adds that she is too independent for him and that he would end up despising her, Gabriel shows he, too, is unwavering in his devotion by declaring, “I would not – ever.”
1967 – “Bushes and Briars,” a traditional folk song, with the voice of Scottish actress and singer Isla Cameron filling in for Christie’s.
2015 – “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme,” a traditional folk song that was recorded by the group Pentangle in 1968 and is performed by Mulligan herself in a duet with Sheen.
The Sword Fight:
1967 – This is the scene that solidified Stamp as a sex symbol and an actor to be reckoned with. One doesn’t need a Freudian scholar to know that when Troy seduces Bathsheba with his demonstration of sword-swinging prowess while waving his blade about her willing body, there is some metaphorical hanky-panky going on. Schlesinger turned this scene into his “Madding Crowd’s” emblematic centerpiece, employing a hilly setting as a kind of stage, and Stamp charging down the hill with his sword drawn still causes one to hold their breath.
2015 – Vinterberg’s interpretation takes place in an intimate opening in the woods and is effective in its own right while emphasizing the nearness of Troy’s dangerous weapon as it slices the air around Bathsheba.
1967 – Special effects being what they were nearly 50 years ago, the downpour during the drunken wedding celebration is mostly a swirl of flying hay with Gabriel struggling to cover the stacks and Bathsheba ineffectually trying to help.
2015 – Gabriel and Bathsheba demonstrate how they make a great team as they defy the angry skies and together place tarps atop the stacks while literally rolling in the hay.
The Sexiest Scene:
1967 – The sword fight.
2015 – Oddly, when Gabriel puts his beefy arms around Bathsheba as he shows her how to use a wheel to sharpen the blades use for shearing. It is right up there with the pottery wheel in “Ghost.”
The Most Tragic Scene:
1967 – Bathsheba opens the coffin that holds Troy’s lover Fanny Robin and her dead child.
2015 – When Bathsheba sadly realizes just how Boldwood has lavishly prepared his home with pricey goods, clothing and furnishings in the hopes that she would be his wife.