New Movies: Vivid Victoriana

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Before he became a novelist, Thomas Hardy was an architect. Though he seldom practiced his profession, he never quite abandoned its principles. Like Victorian buildings, his books were sturdily constructed, gloomy, and based on strong, pseudo-classic foundations —mostly imitation Greek tragedy. The film of Far from the Madding Crowd remains faithful to that arrangement —and therein lie its virtues and flaws.

In the grassy, sheep-grazing county of "Wessex" — England's Dorsetshire —lives Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie), a typical calamity-prone Hardy heroine. Willful, flirtatious, she is pursued by men with names as solid as a Chippendale sideboard. They are Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), an impoverished sheepman; Boldwood (Peter Finch), a strange, eroded landowner of whom people whisper, warns Bathsheba's servant girl, that "he has no passionate parts"; and Troy (Terence Stamp), a seducer-soldier who has his way with any lass who meets his come-hither eyes.

Spurning Oak, turning Boldwood into a racked, frustrated admirer, Bathsheba chooses Troy for her lover, and later for her husband. The marriage proves disastrous, and Troy disappears after the death in childbirth of a servant girl he had "ruined." When rumors of Troy's death reach Boldwood, he begs Bathsheba to reconsider his offer of marriage.

Months later, at their engagement party, the wild-eyed Troy enters to repossess his wife. Boldwood guns down his rival and is taken to prison, leaving the way for Bathsheba and Oak, who has stood patiently in the wings until the melodrama played itself out.

The Hardy canon is filled with coincidences, fateful encounters and cataclysmic sexual passions, which lash the participants with an implacable frenzy. Of his 14 novels, Far from the Madding Crowd, with its relatively happy ending, is probably the most adaptable to film—and, indeed, it went through two silent treatments. In this version, Screenwriter Frederic Raphael has managed to preserve the book's broad vision while clarifying its bucolic speech. His most valuable ally is Director John Schlesinger (Darling), who displays the best sense of Victorian time and place since David Lean in Great Expectations, alternating his stars with a brilliant cast of minor players who serve as a Greek chorus in tragicomic peasant roles.

Occasionally, Schlesinger betrays the work with anachronistic tricks—slowmotion footage or distorted lenses—and the film's stately pace sometimes grinds to a standstill. As Hardy did, Schlesinger relies on the countryside to give the story its character. Benign or brooding, the huge hillocks and gun-metal skies gradually engulf the people and dwarf even their grandest moments. At last, every object of admiration—including Julie Christie, whose sensual beauty has never been more sensuously photographed—is made to be only a mere and minor part of England's green, unpleasant land.

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