“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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“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” (2001) Review

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“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” (2001) Review

Over ten years ago, the BBC aired “”, a four-part television adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel. Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by David Yates, the miniseries starred David Suchet, Shirley Henderson and Matthew Macfadyen. 

“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” told the story of a Central European financier’s impact upon upper-crust British society during the Victorian era. Augustus Melmotte arrives in London with his second wife and his daughter, Marie in the 1870s. Not long after his arrival, Melmotte announces a new scheme to finance a railroad project from Salt Lake City in Utah to the Gulf of Mexico. And he promises instant fortune to those who would invest in his scheme. The Melmotte family is also surrounded by a circle of decadent aristocrats and nouveau riche businessmen, all trying to get a piece of the financial pie. One of the investors is Sir Felix Carbury, a young and dissolute baronet who is quickly running through his widowed mother’s savings. In an attempt to restore their fortunes, his mother, Lady Matilda Carbury writes historical potboilers – a 19th century predecessor to 20th century romance novels. She also plans to have Felix marry Marie, who is an heiress in her own right; and marry daughter Henrietta (Hetta) to their wealthy cousin, Roger Carbury. Although Marie falls in love with Felix, Melmotte has no intention of allowing his daughter to marry a penniless aristocrat. And Hetta shows no interest in Roger, since she has fallen in love with his young ward, an engineer named Paul Montague.  However, Montague also proves to be a thorn in Melmotte’s side, due to his suspicions about the legitimacy over the railroad scheme.

As one can see, the story lines that stream from Trollope’s novel seemed to be plenty. In a way, the plot reminds me of the numerous story arcs that permeated 2004’s “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT”. Although some of the story arcs have nothing to do with Augustus Melmotte, nearly everyone seemed to have some connection to the financier. The exceptions to this rule proved to be the characters of American-born Mrs. Winifred Hurtle, Roger Carbury and Ruby Ruggles, a young farm girl who lives on Roger’s estate. Mrs. Hurtle’s story was strictly limited to her efforts to regain the affections of former lover and help Ruby deal with the licentious Sir Felix. Roger’s story arc was limited to his unsuccessful efforts to win Henrietta’s heart and deal with his knowledge of Paul and Mrs. Hurtle’s relationship. Fortunately, “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” seemed to possess a tighter story than “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT”. To a certain degree.

But I cannot deny that “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” was one of the most entertaining adaptations of a Trollope novel I have ever seen. If I must be honest, I enjoyed it more than I did “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” or 1982’s “THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES”. One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was due to its portrayal of society’s greed and opportunism. I have heard that Trollope had written the novel in protest against the greed and corruption of the 1870s, which resulted in the Long Depression that lasted between 1873 and 1879. The ironic thing is that the economic situation that Trollope believed had permeated British society during the 1870s had been around for a long time and would continue to permeate the world’s economic markets time again – including the recent downturn that has cast a shadow on today’s economies. Trollope’s Augustus Melmotte is today’s Bernie Madoff or Robert Maxwell.

Another aspect of “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” is that it revealed the darker aspects of Victorian society on a more personal level. I did not know whether to be amused or disgusted by the manner in which young British scions such as Sir Felix Carbury scrambled to win the affections of Marie Melmotte and get their hands on her money; or desperate debutantes like Georgiana Longestaffe willing to marry Jewish banker Mr. Brehgert, despite her contempt for his religious beliefs and social position. I doubt that the likes of Georgiana would never contemplate becoming an author of cheesy novels, like Lady Carbury or marrying a man with no funds – like .

Thanks to Davies’ screenplay and David Yates’ direction, “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” permeated with a richly dark and comic style that beautifully suited Trollope’s tale. Hardly anyone – aside from a few such as Paul Montague, Hetta Carbury and Mr. Brehgert – was spared from the pair’s biting portrayal of Trollope’s characters. Two of my favorite scenes featured a ball held by the Melmottes in Episode One and a banquet in honor of the Chinese Emperor in Episode Three. The banquet scene especially had me on the floor laughing at the sight of British high society members gorging themselves on the dishes prepared by Melmotte’s cook.

Although “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” is my favorite Trollope adaptation – so far – I must admit that I had a few problems with it. One, Andrew Davies’ portrayal of the Paul Montague character struck me as slightly boring. Like his literary counterpart, Paul found himself torn between his love for Hetta and his sexual past with Mrs. Hurtle. But Davies’ Paul seemed so . . . noble and stalwart that I found it hard to believe this is the same gutless wonder from Trollope’s novel. And if I must be brutally honest, I found his relationship with Hetta Carbury to be another example of a boring romance between two boring young lovers that seemed to permeate Victorian literature. A part of me longed for Paul to end up with Winifred Hurtle. At least he would have found himself in a more interesting romance. I have one more quibble. In a scene featuring a major quarrel between Melmotte and his daughter Marie, there was a point where both were in each other’s faces . . . growling like animals. Growling? Really? Was that necessary? Because I do not think it was.

One would think I have a problem with Cillian Murphy and Paloma Baeza’s performances as Paul Montague and Hetta Carbury. Trust me, I did not. I thought both gave solid and competent performances. I feel they were sabotaged by Trollope’s portrayal of their characters as “the young lovers” and Davies’ unwillingness to put some zing into their romance. Miranda Otto made a very interesting Mrs. Hurtle, despite her bad attempt at a Southern accent. And Allan Corduner and Fenella Woolgar both gave solid performances that I did not find particularly memorable. On the other hand, I felt more than impressed by Cheryl Campbell as the charming and somewhat manipulative Lady Carbury; Douglas Hodge as the love-sick Roger Carbury; Oliver Ford-Davies as the grasping, yet bigoted Mr. Longestaffe; Helen Schlesinger’s funny performance as the clueless Madame Melmotte; a poignant performance from Jim Carter, who portrayed Mr. Brehgert; and Anne-Marie Duff, who managed to create a balance between Georgiana Longstaffe’s strong-willed willingness to marry a man of another faith and her self-absorption and bigotry.

However, the three performances that stood head above the others came from David Suchet, Shirley Henderson and Matthew Macfadyen. Suchet could have easily portrayed the scheming and gregarious Augustus Melmotte as a cartoonish character. And there were times when it seemed he was in danger of doing so. But Suchet balanced Melmotte’s over-the-top personality with a shrewdness and cynicism that I found appealing – especially when those traits mocked the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of British high society. Shirley Henderson proved to be the perfect person to portray Melmotte’s only daughter, Marie. Superficially, she seemed like a chip off the old block. But Henderson injected a great deal of compassion and poignancy into Marie’s character, making it very easy for me to sympathize toward her unrequited love for Sir Felix Carbury and the heartache she felt upon discovering his lack of love for her. Matthew Macfadyen must have finally made a name for himself in his memorable portrayal of the dissolute Sir Felix Carbury. I cannot deny that Macfadyen revealed a good deal of Sir Felix’s charm. But the actor made it pretty obvious that his character’s charm was at best, superficial. Considering some of the roles he has portrayed over the decade that followed “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW”, I believe Macfadyen’s Sir Felix must have been one of the most self-absorbed characters in his repertoire. And he did a superb job with the role. It is a pity that he never received an acting nomination or award for his performance.

One cannot talk about “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” without pointing out the sumptuous production designs created by Gerry Scott. They were superb. With contributions from Diane Dancklefsen and Mark Kebby’s art direction, Caroline Smith’s set decorations, Chris Seager’s photography and Andrea Galer’s costume designs; Scott and his team did a wonderful job in re-creating Victorian society in the 1870s. I was especially impressed at how Galer’s costumes captured the early years of that decade. I would never call Nicholas Hooper’s score particularly memorable. But I cannot deny that it suited both the story’s theme and setting.

Although I found a few aspects of “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” to complain about – notably the Paul Montague and Hetta Carbury characters. I cannot deny that it is a first-rate production, thanks to Andrew Davies’ adaptation, David Yates’ direction and a fine cast led by David Suchet. More importantly, the story’s theme of greed and corruption leading to economic chaos was not only relevant to the mid-to-late Victorian era, but also for today’s society. “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” strike me as a story for all times.