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Forty years on ...
on 18 September 2007
The last thing I want to get into is a discussion of the technical elements of film-making here. For the time being, this is the DVD we have, even if the transfer could be better and a couple of small cuts could be opened - and it's much better than nothing.
First of all: I last saw this film when it appeared in 1967, I was a student, and I had just discovered Hardy a year or so previously. Memory can only last so long, so that the re-visit yesterday was as if it was a new experience. The film has worn very well; I wasn't disappointed.
The Frederic Raphael screenplay - a masterpiece of its kind - is remarkably faithful to the novel in a number of very pleasing ways. Hardy tied this book, perhaps more so than his others, to the cycle of the seasons; the weather and the landscape have the two lead roles, and acquit them very well. The two most memorable scenes of the film involve Alan Bates in a supporting role, as it were - Oak piercing the sick sheep's hides to let the air out of them, and the covering of the ricks before the storm. What's elemental dominates.
There's some superb acting here. The only real problem is that the main characters are perhaps too well-spoken - Boldwood's standard English fits, and Serjeant Troy (a brilliant performance from Terence Stamp, possibly his best) still has his Irish lilt, but surely both Oak and Bathsheba would have spoken with Dorset accents. Both Julie Christie and Alan Bates can "do" accents. Why not here? But, all said and done, FIVE wonderful performances - yes, Christie, Stamp, Bates, and Peter Finch all included. The fifth, probably the most magnetic of all, is Prunella Ransome's Fanny Robin; when she's on screen, you see no-one else, and full justice is done to this most pitiable of Hardy's characters. Ransome makes the beautiful servant-girl into a true plaything of Fate, in the best Hardy tradition.
My two bits of nit-picking both end up in the cinematographer's lap. We associate Nicolas Roeg with the wonderful camera work of his early films - "Walkabout", "Don't Look Now", and even the otherwise awful "Bad Timing" - but his hand has never been more visible, more a force toward good, than in "Far from the Madding Crowd." One fault is really Hardy's for going in for too much melodrama to provide a deus ex machina at the end, and the mistake Roeg makes is to dwell too much on the gore; but the other is all his fault. Troy's demonstration of swordplay to Bathsheba is probably the most erotic scene in all of English literature the way Hardy wrote it, and the film makes it - suitably martial, but otherwise antiseptic.
These are small quibbles. We have a masterpiece before us here; let's recognize it as such.