Review: Far From The Madding Crowd

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DIR: Thomas Vinterberg • WRI: David Nicholls • PRO: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich • DOP: Charlotte Bruus Christensen • ED: Claire Simpson • MUS: Craig Armstrong • DES: Kave Quinn • CAST: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple

 

Undoubtedly acclaimed filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg has had a somewhat fractured relationship with directing films in the English language, his previous two attempts, It’s All About Love (2003) and Dear Wendy (2005), mercilessly panned by critics and audiences. Obviously wounded by both experiences, it has taken ten years for Vinterberg to venture near English-language films, instead carving a celebrated career in his native tongue. However, in Far From the Madding Crowd, not only does the highly eccentric Dane revisit a language that has somewhat stained his otherwise accomplished filmography but he perversely provokes himself by undertaking an adaptation of one of the most revered quintessential British novels of all time and a novel that has already been exhausted by adaptations across the board in popular culture.

 

Carey Mulligan stars as the proud and willful Bathsheba Everdene, who has vowed to retain her independence and remain unwed. She lives and works with her aunt on a small farm and appears content with her uncomplicated life. When her uncle leaves his prosperous farm to her in his will, she becomes mistress of the land, relishing in her fortune and autonomy. Owing to her beauty and spirit, Bathsheba becomes the focus of many a suitor, including the dignified and stoical Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) whom she has already refused to wed, the wealthy but demoralized William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and gambling reprobate, ex-Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). All three men determine on taming and marrying Bathsheba, challenging her to succumb to her latent desires or retain her cherished freedom, throwing her into a complete entangled state of affairs.

 

With the spate of period dramas oversaturating both film and television industries in recent years, it can be quite exhausting for sated audiences to muster up enthusiasm for yet another period drama adaptation and for a director to root out some unchartered element to inject into a formulaic genre that refuses to be tampered with. However, with an idiosyncratic, art-house cinema virtuoso at the helm, it is reasonable to expect that Vinterberg’s aberration in directing Far From the Madding Crowd could transgress and alter the conventions of the traditional period drama by bringing a distinctive avant-garde style to a staid and stubborn genre. Alas, such expectations are not met and this is owing to Vinterberg’s reluctance to challenge the conventions of a cinematic genre in the manner in which he has founded his entire career upon, which comes as a complete disappointment.

 

The screenplay adaptation does not deviate in any way from its source material; therefore those familiar with the novel should not expect any narrative rude awakenings. Such an inflexible adaptation results in a rather half-hearted screenplay that lacks the energy of its source novel, failing to arouse or thrill on any level. That screenwriter David Nicholls harbours a fear of alienating ardent period drama / Hardy enthusiasts by reformulating an over-familiar plot is evident, but what is more regrettable is, although there are flashes of Vinterberg’s skilled craftsmanship throughout the film, it ultimately remains contained within the tight strictures of the genre and becomes no better or worse than the plethora of recent period dramas; solid and dependable but utterly riskless and tired, begging the question, is the period drama genre well passed its sell by date?

 

Mulligan is competent if not slightly confined in the role of spirited Bathsheba, which is somewhat ironic given the mettlesome characteristics of her character and Mulligan’s penchant for plucky but vulnerable heroines. She appears too self-contained by the limitations of the screenplay and finds herself with nowhere to go but join up the predictable and restrictive period drama dots. Matthias Schoenaerts has not been unduly stretched since his previous detached lead role in Alan Rickman’s recent costume drama, A Little Chaos, and again appears reluctant to navigate his character beyond specific emotional boundaries, but does inject just enough pathos into Gabriel Oak to consider him a plausible suitor for the headstrong but fragile Bathsheba. Both Michael Sheen, as the repressive-turned-obsessive Boldwood, and Tom Sturridge, as the capricious soldier Troy, more than compensate for the impediments of the two leading actors, commandeering each scene they are in and striking the perfect balance between fear and self-loathing and compulsive desire and manic obsession.

 

Aside from the supporting cast, the only other significant element redeeming Far From the Madding Crowd from its otherwise sluggishness is the style of the film. As is customary with BBC period dramas, the film is a beautiful spectacle to behold. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen has masterfully created a dazzling work of art with a kaleidoscopic vision of spellbinding and hypnotic landscapes captured through a frisky and fluid cinematic lens. The production design gleams, fusing sophisticated, gentrified wealth with agricultural peasantry and penury, aesthetically rooting the audience in late 19th century England, undoubtedly spectacular but not imposing enough to salvage the film from its overall narrative shortcomings.

 

Far From the Madding Crowd will undoubtedly appeal to period drama devotees who demand film adaptations remain faithful to its classic source material. All required narrative archetypes and characteristics of the genre remain firmly in tact; spirited heroine, brooding hero, charming villain, bumbling paramour, resplendent setting and costumes, entangled plot and linear narrative that overcomes conflict and order restored. It does remain difficult, however, to reconcile this adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd with a director who championed for a more aseptic form of filmmaking twenty years ago and if Vinterberg himself cannot inject some anomalous quirk into the jaded period drama, then perhaps it is time the genre itself took a long break in a nice quiet, rural place.

 

 Dee O’Donoghue

12A (See IFCO for details)

119 minutes

Far From the Madding Crowd is released 1st May 2015

 

Far From the Madding Crowd  – Official Website

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Little Chaos

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DIR: Alan Rickman • WRI: Jenny Brock, Alison Deegan, Alan Rickman • PRO: Andrea Calderwood, Gail Egan, Bertrand Faivre • DOP: Ellen Kuras • ED: Nicolas Gaster • MUS: Peter Gregson • DES: James Merifield • CAST: Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Ehle, Helen McCrory
 
It has taken celebrated British actor Alan Rickman eighteen years to follow up his 1997 directorial debut, the critically acclaimed The Winter Guest, adapted by Sharman Macdonald’s mood-evoking Scottish play of the same name. Such a directing hiatus by Rickman, along with an expansive acting legacy, would possibly suggest that Rickman’s passion for his craft is better served in front of the camera rather than behind it. His second outing as director, however, sees him marry the role with that of actor in A Little Chaos, a 17th century period drama, which tells the story of lowly-widowed landscape gardener, Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet), who secures a contract to design one of the principal gardens at The Palace of Versailles.

 

When King Louis XIV (Rickman) determines that The Palace of Versailles should be an enviable symbol of French imperial resplendence, he commissions an extravagant reconstruction of one of its gardens under the charge of esteemed landscape artist André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) who submits the contract out to tender amongst the elite of French artistic nobility. As the only female contender for the contract and with her artistic ideals severely conflicting with Le Notre’s vision, Sabine is confounded when she secures the coveted indenture, despite overwhelming derisive indignation from her male adversaries. As the mammoth project commences, Sabine battles gender and class barriers, professional sabotage and personal suffering to commence or even execute the majestic project, all whilst resisting a burgeoning sexual attraction to her married employer, le Notre.

 

With such a notable cast, steered by Winslet, who routinely favours intelligent and formidable female roles, Sabine de Barra should be another character of this ilk to augment her illustrious acting repertoire. Sabine de Barra’s awareness of her gender and class limitations and her position as a recent widow does not place her as an embittered or embattled feminist attempting to unleash feminist aspirations on her privileged masculine contemporaries. Rather she is a humble and gracious artist in her own right, in a specific era, who excels in her artistic skill and vision. Yet, feminist aspirations or otherwise, her procurement of the coveted Versailles contract, above the pestiferous elite, does place her within the feminist bracket and it is this trajectory that should drive the narrative in A Little Chaos. The plot, however, of a 17th century subaltern, transgressing the impenetrable demarcations of privileged masculine courtier positions at the French royal court and French society overall, has been abandoned in favour of a trite and predictable love story, alas making A Little Chaos quite a regrettable affair through missed opportunity and Winslet’s decision to undertake the unsatisfying role, simply baffling.

 

The plot and character development of Sabine de Barra, which may have initially appealed to Winslet, owing to a feminine victory over patriarchal social structures, is wholly abandoned and the narrative evolves into a love affair between a noble man and a subordinate woman, an affair that is implausible, farcical and simply too convenient. The mammoth undertaking in reconstructing the gardens, the incessant sabotage in her efforts and Sabine’s trauma at losing her husband and child in tragic circumstances are introduced but are never fully developed or psychologically explored. Undoubtedly Winslet submits her consistently dependable performance and whilst it is nuanced and evenly balanced between determined artist and vulnerable widow when necessary, there is a sense that Winslet is desperately seeking more of an acting challenge that the script does just not allow. Indeed, the role of Sabine is reminiscent of her earlier period work when she was finding her niche as a serious dramatic actress.

 

There are good solid turns from the supporting cast, with a great comedic turn from a giddy Jennifer Ehle as Madame De Montespan and Stanley Tucci as the mincing Philippe d’Orleans. Helen McCrory shines as the snarling, embittered wife of Le Notre and Rickman himself is perfect as the emotionally guarded but sympathetic King Louis XIV but there is a palpable sense that Rickman is yearning to get out from behind the camera and remain in front of it.

 

As expected from a BBC Films costume drama, the production design is exquisite, with faultless, lavish production values. However, there is a sense that the production itself is more on a par with the British aristocracy of the 17th century than the renowned wanton French court of the same era. It is all rather too restraint and temperate an affair, hugely lacking the decadence and opulence of French aristocratic life. Innuendo rather than actuality becomes a safety net on the back of a rather lacklustre plot with a distinct lack of dramatic climax. A Little Chaos is just too cosy, too safe and simply too spiritless.

 

A Little Chaos should be about a lowly but talented young woman’s penetration of the gender and social barriers of the 17th century but in essence it is a formulaic love story. Sabine may appear to challenge gender and class stereotypes as a non-noble woman overcoming female subordination but Sabine’s role as a woman essentially remains contained within her era and she remains defined by the men of her past, present and future. The film is a passable, if not a slightly chaotic effort by Rickman as a director and it leaves one wondering if it will be another eighteen years before he goes behind the camera again.

Dee O’Donoghue

 

15A (See IFCO for details)

116 minutes

A Little Chaos is released 17th April 2015

 

A Little Chaos – Official Website

 

 

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Suite Française

Suite Française

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Dir: Saul Dibb; Wri: Saul Dibb, Matt Charman; Pro: Romain Bremond, Andrea Cornwell, Michael Kuhn, Xavier Marchand; DOP: Edouard Grau; Ed: Chris Dickens; Mus: Rael Jones. Cast: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sam Riley, Ruth Wilson, Margot Robbie

 

A soapy wartime yarn elevated by a handsome production and some strong performances, Suite Française cannot, by definition, capture what makes Irène Némirovsky’s source novel such an intriguing proposition. Written during the Nazi occupation of France but left incomplete at the time of Némirovsky’s death in Auschwitz in 1942, Suite Française was completed posthumously and published in 2004. The novel’s unique provenance has little bearing on its plot, though, which has been streamlined here into a familiar, but mildly engrossing, story of forbidden love.

 

Michelle Williams takes the central role of Lucile, a young woman who lives with her frosty mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) in a small French village, at the beginning of the Nazi occupation. When the women are forced to accommodate a German soldier, Bruno (Matthias Schoenaerts) in their home, an unlikely secret romance blossoms, leading to assorted melodramatic ramifications. Williams has a natural subtlety that was genuinely affecting in her breakthrough role in Brokeback Mountain (2004), and has served her well in her two collaborations with Kelly Reichardt. Here, her reserved, watchful quality brings some much needed shading to the thinly written character of Lucile. There is, however, a distinct lack of spark between Williams and Schoenarts, leaving the plot’s engine sputtering. Schoenarts certainly looks the part of a paperback romantic hero, but the script’s insistence on presenting Bruno simply as a good man in a bad situation are bland at best and disingenuous at worst, and leave the character less neutral than neutered.

 

The tone is generally old-fashioned, with the crisp British accents in which the French villagers communicate evoking – with a certain charm – the Warner Bros. pot-boilers of the 1940s. Director Saul Dibb, who made his debut with the inner-city gang drama Bullet Boy (2004), deploys a more contemporary sensibility only fleetingly, and usually in scenes of action and violence. An early air-raid sequence is terrifically handled, cleverly presenting the open air and sunshine of the French countryside as a source of terror, while brief glimpses of executions and interrogations stand out starkly against the curiously cosy tone of the film. These moments aside, one feels that Suite Française may play better on television, its mild intrigues and lovingly rendered period trappings seeming a perfect fit for a Sunday evening BBC drama.

 

Of the supporting cast, Scott Thomas is on autopilot mode, but still walks off with most of her scenes. Others, such as Eileen Atkins and Ruth Wilson, are given less to do, while rising star Margot Robbie is prominently billed, but has just a handful of lines as a rustic wench. That the part registers at all is more down to Robbie’s own peculiar blend of carnality and innocence than to anything in the script. Although the overall pacing is fairly smooth, the underused cast and truncated sub-plots suggest that the film has either been cut down from a much longer running time, or has been substantially reshaped in editing. Further evidence of tinkering comes in the form of a needless voice-over that is presumably intended to underscore Lucile’s emotional awakening, but has the unintended effect of making Williams’ understated central performance seem less expressive than it is.

David Turpin

15A (See IFCO for details)
107 minutes

Run All Night is released 13th March 2015

 

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Cinema Review: Rust and Bone

DIR: Jacques Audiard WRI: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain   PRO: Jacques Audiard,  Martine Cassinelli  DOP: Stéphane Fontaine • ED: Juliette Welfling • DES: Michel Barthélémy • CAST:  Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure, Céline Sallette

The plot of Rust and Bone – the latest film from A Prophet director Jacques Audiard – must have sounded absolutely ridiculous on paper. Orca whale attacks, bare-knuckle boxing tournaments, illegal surveillance rings, a severely disfigured protagonist… and that’s just the first half. There’s no denying that the execution can sometimes be contrived and silly too. And yet… Rust and Bone enthusiastically embraces its eccentric ideas and emerges as an involving, distinctive melodrama.

 

Matthias Schoenaerts plays Alain, who has moved into his sister’s house to get his young son away from his troubled mother. After procuring a job as a bouncer at a nightclub, Alain rescues Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) from a group of aggressive admirers. While dropping her home, Alain discovers that Stéphanie thrives on male attention in order to make her partner jealous. Still, the two exchange phone numbers and that seems like the end of it… until marine mammal trainer Stéphanie suffers a terrible whale-related accident at work. It’s several months after the accident that, in the midst of a debilitating depression, she decides to call Alain. The two commence a very unusual friendship.

 

A lot of Rust and Bone’s effectiveness is due to the stellar work by the two leads. Cotillard is the real deal, a genuine movie star – radiant and extraordinarily talented. Here, she turns in a hypnotically emotive and complex performance. Stéphanie is stuck in a situation where her whole personal and professional lifestyles have been cruelly ripped away. Luckily Audiard and Cotillard manage to quickly develop the character beyond the self-pity that initially seems doomed to define her. Schoenaerts, meanwhile, plays a protagonist who is convincingly allergic to commitment in all its forms. His journey to maturity is an often frustrating albeit ultimately rewarding one. Both roles are physically and emotionally demanding in very different ways, and the odd chemistry between the two make the inevitable romantic developments compelling.

 

The script adds a lot of complications to differentiate what is, in essence, an old-fashioned romance from the crowd. It’s certainly different, for better or worse – two lost souls bonding over illegal fighting tournaments leads to some absurd moments, and some third act dramatics are contrivances too far. Still, the bizarre set-ups gel surprisingly well with the understated, poetic romance and character arcs. The direction and cinematography are consistently strong – the film is rich with visual symbolism and Audiard is fully aware of the cinematic power of quiet contemplation. Given the film’s themes and dreamy presentation, comparisons to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are not unwarranted, if not always favourable. A further stylistic flourish is a series of a peculiar yet effective music cues. I am no fan of Katy Perry’s Fireworks, but it soundtracks two of Rust and Bone’s most poignant and memorable sequences.

 

The strange tone and narrative of Rust and Bone might restrict its wider appeal – it’s hard to call if it will experience the same crossover success A Prophet enjoyed. It’s rough around the edges, certainly, but at its best Rust and Bone can be a truly intoxicating experience. The talented director and cast ensure what could have been a very silly film indeed evolves into something much more elegant.

Stephen McNeice

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
122 mins

Rust and Bone is released on 2nd November 2012

Rust and Bone –  Official Website

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QRQyuzcg_Pk

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