“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (1998) Review

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (1998) Review

For years, I had made an effort to avoid any novel written by Thomas Hardy and any movie or television production based upon his works. This has nothing to do with how I felt about the quality of his work. My attitude sprang from my reading of his 1886 novel, “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, when I was in my late teens. I found the latter rather depressing and suspected that most of his other works possessed the same downbeat tone. As I grew older, I discovered a tolerance for stories with a downbeat or bittersweet ending. This led me to try Hardy again and so, I focused my attention on the 1998 miniseries, “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”.

Based upon Hardy’s 1874 novel, “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” told the story about a young woman named Bathsheba Everdene, who had recently inherited her late uncle’s prosperous estate. Possessing a vain, yet independent and naïve personality, Bathsheba finds herself torn between three men who wish to marry her:

*Gabriel Oak – a failed sheep farmer who is hired by Bathsheba as a shepherd for her farm

*William Boldwood – a prosperous farmer and Bathsheba’s neighbor, who develops a romantic obsession toward her

*Sergeant Francis “Frank” Troy – a dashing Army sergeant, who turns to Bathsheba not long after his planned wedding to a local girl named Fanny Robin fails to take place.

The story begins with Bathsheba living on a farm with her aunt, Mrs. Hurst. She meets Gabriel Oak, a former shepherd who has leased and stocked a sheep farm. Although the pair develops a close friendship, Gabriel falls in love with Bathsheba and eventually proposes marriage. Valuing her independence too much, Bathsheba refuses and their relationship cools down. Gabriel’s fortunes take a worse for turn, when his inexperienced sheep dog drives his flock of sheep over a cliff, bankrupting him. Bathsheba, on the other hand, inherits her uncle’s prosperous estate in Westbury. Their paths crosses again, and she ends up hiring Gabriel as her new shepherd.

However, Bathsheba has also become acquainted with her new neighbor, the wealthy farmer, John Boldwood, who becomes romantically obsessed with her after she sends him a Valentine’s Day card as a joke. He sets about wooing her in a persistent manner that she finds difficult to ignore. But just as Bathsheba is about to consider Mr. Boldwood as a potential husband, Sergeant Frank Troy enters her life and she becomes infatuated with him. Unbeknownst to anyone, Frank was set to marry one of Bathsheba’s former servants, a young woman named Fanny Robin. Unfortunately, the latter showed up at the wrong church for the wedding. Humiliated and angry, Frank called off the wedding. While Bathsheba finds herself in the middle of a rather unpleasant love triangle between Boldwood and Frank, Gabriel can only watch helplessly as this situation develops into tragedy.

I might as well be honest. “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” did not strike me as completely tragic. It did not prove to be tragic at the same level as stories like “The Mayor of Casterbridge” or “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”. In fact, the story did not even have a tragic ending (for which I am grateful). But there was something . . . I cannot put my finger on it . . . there was an undertone to the story that I found both fascinating and disturbing. And it all revolved around the character of Bathsheba Everdene. Personally, I feel that she was one of Hardy’s best creations. Bathsheba proved to be a curious mixture of virtues and flaws that I fear is becoming increasingly rare among fictional female characters.

One one hand, Bathsheba was an intelligent woman who quickly learned to manage an estate and lead a group of workers who harbored doubts about her, due to her gender. She also had the good sense to realize she lacked the experience or talent to deal with some aspect of estate managing and turn to someone who could help her – usually Gabriel Oak. On the other hand, Bathsheba also proved to be a vain young woman, who seemed a bit too concerned about how others thought about her. This vanity led her to hide her previous friendship with Gabriel . . . to the point that she insisted they maintain an employer-employee distance from each other. Bathsheba also possessed a slightly cruel streak that led her to thoughtlessly play an unkind joke on John Boldwood by sending him a Valentine Day’s card with the words “Marry me” scribbled on it. Ironically, Bathsheba also proved she could be just as obsessive as Boldwood, when she fell for Frank Troy and realizes after their wedding that he had continued to love his former fiancée, Fanny Robin. It was this combination of positive and negative traits that made Bathsheba such an interesting and ambiguous character. And Bathsheba’s ambiguous nature seemed to have a strong impact on Hardy’s tale.

Through Bathsheba’s relationship with Gabriel Oak, audiences received glimpses of the day-to-day realities of business and life on a 19th century farm. Audiences also got a chance to view Bathsheba through Gabriel’s eyes – despite his love for her, he seemed to harbor a realistic view of her. Through her relationships with neighbor John Boldwood and husband Frank Troy, audiences got the chance to see Bathsheba deal with obsession from both sides of the fence – whether she was the object of Boldwood’s obsession or Frank was the object of hers. Now that I think about it, I find it odd that a major character would experience obsession from different perspectives in that manner. How strange . . . and yet, satisfying in a way.

Although the plot for “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” focused strongly on the romantic dynamics between Bathsheba, the three men in her life and the Fanny Robin character; I was pleased to discover that Philomena McDonagh’s screenplay also gave audiences many glimpses into the lives of the farmhands that worked for Bathsheba. The miniseries delved into her relationship with her workers and their own perspectives and hangups over whether she could handle being the owner of prosperous farm. As with her relationship with Gabriel, Bathsheba’s relationship with her workers allowed the audiences to appreciate the realities of life on a 19th century farm.

The production values for “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” seemed pretty top-notch. Well . . . most of them. I had no problems with Adrian Smith’s production designs. I thought he did an excellent job in re-creating mid 19th century Wessex. Rosie Hardwick and Paul Kirby’s art direction contributed to the movie’s overall look, along with Nic Ede’s costume designs. I find it interesting that this version is set between the late 1850s and 1860, especially since the other two adaptation are set in the 1870s . . . the same decade as the novel’s publication. Although I admire John Daly’s use of the locations in Derbyshire, Cheshire and Wiltshire as substitutes for Wessex, I did not care for the cinematography very much. I found it slightly too dark and the color did not hold up well in the following seventeen to eighteen years.

The cast, on the other hand, struck me as first-rate. It is a pity that very few ever comment on Paloma Baeza’s portrayal of Bathsheba Everdeen. Frankly, I thought she did an excellent job in conveying both the character’s ambiguities, charm and intelligence. More importantly, she did a first-rate job in carrying such a large production on her shoulders, at such a young age. Nathaniel Parker’s portrayal of Gabriel Oak proved to be the production’s emotional backbone. But the actor also did an excellent job in conveying his character’s quiet passion, along with his jealousy and growing despair over Bathsheba’s relationships with both John Boldwood and Frank Troy.

John Terry was at least a decade older than the John Boldwood character at the time this miniseries was filmed. However, I do not believe that this decade old age difference hampered his character one whit. He gave an outstanding performance as the love-sick, middle-aged farmer who developed a growing obsession over the young and pretty Bathsheba. At first, I had some difficulty is viewing Jonathan Firth as the dashing, yet egotistical Frank Troy. I fear this had to do with my inability to view the actor as the roguish type. And I was not that impressed by the sword demonstration scene between his his character and Baeza’s Bathsheba. But the more I watched Firth on the television screen, the more I found myself impressed by his performance . . . especially by the time his character had married Bathsheba and began to reveal his less than pleasant traits to his new wife. Natasha Little gave a very charming, yet sympathetic performance as the hard-luck Fanny Robin, whose mistake in showing up at the wrong church for her wedding to Frank, proved to be so disastrous. Fortunately for Little, the screenplay allowed her to portray Fanny as an individual with her own set of emotions, instead of the mere plot device that Hardy had portrayed in the novel. The production also benefited from solid performances by Tracy Keating, Gabrielle Lloyd, Linda Bassett, Phillip Joseph, Rhys Morgan, Reginald Callcott and Sean Gilder.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” may have suffered from questionable photography, but I certainly had no problems with other aspects of the productions. Its 216 minutes running time allowed screenwriter Philomena McDonagh and director Nicholas Renton to create a superb and detailed adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel. Also, top-notch production values (aside from the photography) and excellent performances from a cast led by Paloma Baeza and Nathaniel Parker added a great deal to already well done miniseries.

2.1104482

R.I.P. Nigel Terry (1945-2015)

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“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

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“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

William Makepeace Thackery’s 1848 novel about the life and travails of an ambitious young woman in early 19th century has generated many film and television adaptations. One of them turned out to be the 2004 movie that was directed by Mira Nair. 

“VANITY FAIR” covers the early adulthood of one Becky Sharp, the pretty and ambitious daughter of an English not-so-successful painter and a French dancer during the early years from 1802 to 1830. The movie covers Becky’s life during her impoverished childhood with her painter father, during her last day as a student at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies, where she meets her only friend Amelia Sedley – the only daughter of a slightly wealthy gentleman and her years as a governess for the daughters of a crude, yet genial baronet named Sir Pitt Crawley. While working for the Crawleys, Becky meets and falls in love with Sir Pitt’s younger son, Captain Rawdon Crawley. When Sir Pitt proposes marriage to Becky, she shocks the family with news of her secret marriage to Rawdon. The couple is ostracized and ends up living in London on Rawdon’s military pay and gambling winnings. They also become reacquainted with Amelia Sedley, who has her own problems. When her father loses his fortune, the father of her beau, George Osborne, tries to arrange a marriage between him and a Jamaican heiress. Leery of the idea of marrying a woman of mixed blood, he marries Amelia behind Mr. Obsorne’s back, and the latter disinherits him. Not long after George and Amelia’s marriage, word reaches Britain of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and control of France. Becky and Amelia follow Rawdon, George, and Dobbin, who are suddenly deployed to Brussels as part of the Duke of Wellington’s army. And life for Becky and those close to her prove to be even more difficult.

The first thing I noticed about “VANITY FAIR” was that it was one of the most beautiful looking movies I have ever seen in recent years. Beautiful and colorful. A part of me wonders if director Mira Nair was responsible for the movie’s overall look. Some people might complain and describe the movie’s look as garish. I would be the first to disagree. Despite its color – dominated by a rich and deep red that has always appealed to me – “VANITY FAIR” has also struck me as rather elegant looking film, thanks to cinematographer Declan Quinn. But he was not the only one responsible for the film’s visual look. Maria Djurkovic’s production designs and the work from the art direction team – Nick Palmer, Sam Stokes and Lucinda Thomson. All did an excellent job of not only creating what I believe to be one of the most colorful and elegant films I have ever seen, but also in re-creating early 19th century Britain, Belgium, Germany and India. But I do have a special place in my heart for Beatrix Aruna Pasztor’s costume designs. I found them absolutely ravishing. Colorful . . . gorgeous. I am aware that many did not find them historically accurate. Pasztor put a bit more Hollywood into her designs than history. But I simply do not care. I love them. And to express this love, the following is a brief sample of her costumes worn by actress Reese Witherspoon:

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I understand that Witherspoon was pregnant at the time and Pasztor had to accommodate the actress’ pregnancy for her costumes. Judging from what I saw on the screen, I am beginning to believe that Witherspoon’s pregnancy served her role in the story just fine.

Now that I have raved over the movie’s visual look and style, I might as well talk about the movie’s adaptation. When I first heard about “VANITY FAIR”, the word-of-mouth on the Web seemed to be pretty negative. Thackery’s novel is a long one – written in twenty parts. Naturally, a movie with a running time of 141 minutes was not about to cover everything in the story. And I have never been one of those purists who believe that a movie or television adaptation had to be completely faithful to its source. Quite frankly, it is impossible for any movie or television miniseries to achieve. And so, it was not that surprising that the screenplay written by Julian Fellowes, Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet would not prove to be an accurate adaptation. I expected that. However, there were some changes I could have done without.

Becky Sharp has always been one of the most intriguing female characters in literary history. Among the traits that have made her fascinating were her ambitions, amorality, talent for manipulation and sharp tongue. As much as I enjoyed Reese Witherspoon’s performance in the movie – and I really did – I thought it was a mistake for Fellowes, Faulk and Skeet to make Becky a more “likeable” personality in the movie’s first half. One, it took a little bite not only out of the character, but from the story’s satirical style, as well. And two, I found this change unnecessary, considering that literary fans have always liked the darker Becky anyway. Thankfully, this vanilla-style Becky Sharp disappeared in the movie’s second half, as the three screenwriters returned to Thackery’s sharper and darker portrayal of the character. I was also a little disappointed with the movie’s sequence featuring Becky’s stay at the Sedley home and her seduction of Amelia’s older brother, Jos. I realize that as a movie adaptation, “VANITY FAIR” was not bound to be completely accurate as a story. But I was rather disappointed with the sequence featuring Becky’s visit to the Sedley home at Russell Square in London. Perhaps it was just me, but I found that particular sequence somewhat rushed. I was also disappointed by Nair and producer Jannette Day’s decision to delete the scene featuring Becky’s final meeting with her estranged son, Rawdy Crawley. This is not out of some desire to see Robert Pattinson on the screen. Considering that the movie’s second half did not hesitate to reveal Becky’s lack of warmth toward her son, I felt that this last scene could have remained before she departed Europe for India with Jos.

Despite my complaints and the negative view of the movie by moviegoers that demanded complete accuracy, I still enjoyed“VANITY FAIR” very much. Although I was a little disappointed in the movie’s lighter portrayal of the Becky Sharp, I did enjoy some of the other changes. I had no problem with the addition of a scene from Becky’s childhood in which she first meets Lord Steyne. I felt that this scene served as a strong and plausible omen of her future relationship with the aristocrat. Unlike others, I had no problems with Becky’s fate in the end of the movie. I have always liked the character, regardless of her amoral personality. And for once, it was nice to see her have some kind of happy ending – even with the likes of the lovesick Jos Sedley. Otherwise, I felt that“VANITY FAIR” covered a good deal of Thackery’s novel with a sense of humor and flair.

I have always found it odd that most people seemed taken aback by an American in a British role more so than a Briton in an American role. After all, it really depends upon the individual actor or actress on whether he or she can handle a different accent. In the case of Reese Witherspoon, she used a passable British accent, even if it was not completely authentic. More importantly, not only did she give an excellent performance, despite the writers’ changes in Becky’s character, she was also excellent in the movie’s second half, which revealed Becky’s darker nature.

Witherspoon was ably assisted with a first-rate cast. The movie featured fine performances from the likes of James Purefoy, Deborah Findley, Tony Maudsley, Geraldine McEwan, Eileen Atkins, Douglas Hodge, Natasha Little (who portrayed Becky Sharp in the 1998 television adaptation of the novel), and especially Romola Garai and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Amelia Sedley and George Osborne. But I was especially impressed by a handful of performances that belonged to Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans and Gabriel Byrne. Bob Hoskins was a delight as the slightly crude and lovesick Sir Pitt Crawley. Rhys Ifans gave one of his most subtle performances as the upright and slightly self-righteous William Dobbins, who harbored a unrequited love for Amelia. Jim Broadbent gave an intense performance as George’s ambitious and grasping father. And Gabriel Byrne was both subtle and cruel as the lustful and self-indulgent Marquis of Steyne.

In the end, I have to say that I cannot share the negative opinions of “VANITY FAIR”. I realize that it is not a “pure” adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s novel or that it is perfect. But honestly, I do not care. Despite its flaws, “VANITY FAIR” proved to be a very entertaining movie for me. And I would have no problem watching it as much as possible in the future.