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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The Damned United

The Damned United
The Damned United

DIR: Tom Hooper • WRI: Peter Morgan • PRO: Andy Harries, Grainne Marmion • DOP: Ben Smithard • ED: Melanie Oliver • DES: Eve Stewart • CAST: Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, Stephen Graham, Jim Broadbent

Peter Morgan (writer of The Queen and Frost/Nixon) reunites for the third time with Michael Sheen (lead actor of The Queen and Frost/Nixon) as the two men look to complete a hat-trick.

Michael Sheen can tick off another box on his list of his portrayals of iconic Englishmen as his witty performance is a key reason for The Damned United being a joy to watch.

The performances stand out with many great performances by the leading cast, in particular Sheen and Spall, who show a very impressive on screen relationship.

The film can get confusing at times as it follows two different stories, switching frequently from Brian Clough’s miraculous time at Derby County and his disappointing and shambolic time at Derby’s then-rivals Leeds United.

The film doesn’t get involved in Clough’s personal life but focuses on his career with both clubs, starting off with Clough viewed firstly as a small-time Second Division manager then an arrogant manager on top of Division One. Another issue is his close friendship with his assistant Peter Taylor (Spall) and his hatred of the man who preceded him as Leeds boss, Don Revie (Meaney). While at Leeds the key points of focus are Clough’s determination to replace Don Revie as a hero and ‘father figure’ in Leeds.

Many people may feel that The Damned United is just for football fans, but even though it may appeal more to football fans, it’s an entertaining film and a joy to watch.

Patrick Foster

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Frost/Nixon

DIR: Ron Howard • WRI: Peter Morgan • PRO: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard • DOP: Salvatore Totino • ED: Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill • DES: Michael Corenblith • CAST: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen, Rebecca Hall, Sam Rockwell, Toby Jones, Kevin Bacon

Frost/Nixon is a movie adaptation of an award-winning play, dramatising the events surrounding the most-watched interview in US TV history. The movie characterises contemporary figures, willingly being interviewed about their portrayal as part of the movie’s publicity (David Frost) and modern historic figures who have left indelible marks on political and cultural discourse (Richard Nixon). In being a treatment of one element of a larger-scale scandal and legacy, it is open to being doubly judged, firstly as a piece of entertainment and secondly as an account of a high-profile event.

The movie succeeds on both levels – it is a tightly wound, entertaining movie, with talented actors pedalling their trade. Characters are truly evoked on screen – in a lesser year Frank Langella would be a banker for an Oscar®, let alone a nomination, for his performance as Nixon. Certainly his actions and words become exalted but the standout scenes are those of the interview where what was considered his confession are delivered – quiet, reposed, fatalistic with discomfort. At one point a grimaced face looks to the camera and you need to catch your breath, the portrayal becomes so effective. This is his milkshake scene. Character is king here. Michael Sheen’s role as Frost should not be undervalued either; the man has carved out a niche of pitch-perfect portrayals, never impersonations, of historic figures. His character reflects a naivety and a guile, which ultimately proves key to the building sense of suspense and an oncoming battle.

You could put forward a hypothesis that everyone has some sense of who Richard Nixon was, his name has descended into such infamy – indeed as is remarked in the film, every political scandal of note since then has had the word ‘gate’ tagged on. Think of the countless times a Nixon mask has been worn in a bank heist movie or the parodying references to his sweaty brow and of course Matt Groening’s use of his dismembered head as a character in Futurama purely to continue to poke fun at him. It’s too easy to say the movie humanises him. The point of the exercise is not an exposé – no matter what the hearings prior to the Watergate scandal uncovered, they were a point of political order. The true accountability came with these interviews, a question and answer session beamed into American living rooms. People debate whether the result was truly a confession, or a futile effort at revealing already known details. Maybe the reality of what happened in the negotiations surrounding the interviews would portray a far more cynical set of motives. The movie, however, tells a story of a man conflicted by a desire to account for himself, tempered by material gain and proving his worth as a statesman.

A parallel is created with the travails of Frost and his desire to make an event without truly knowing his material. This is well done but in a way less interesting. An aura of respect and intrigue is effortlessly created around Nixon, almost through misdirection. Some sharp wit, reference to great achievements and depth of character are smartly included in a movie that also manages to be thrilling and suspenseful. Never once is there a sense we are watching an adaptation of a play and the lifelessness that can weigh down such a movie. Whether it is the script, use of mixed locales, the recreation of the era, the fact there is a call for claustrophobia at times or a combination of these elements, the movie is a comfortable watch with no niggling sense of why you are not engaging.

There are ‘robot-season movies’ and there are ‘end-of-year-season movies’, ‘Frost/Nixon’ clearly falls under the latter and may only attract a limited audience. This movie, however, can be watched and enjoyed with only cursory knowledge of the topic. It comes with a guarantee to compel your interest in the era and its people afterwards.

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