Nearly a century after the publication of Thomas Hardy’s novel on which it is based, the “mod” writer and director of Darling (1965), Frederic Raphael and John Schlesinger, respectively, surprised everyone by making the big-budget film version of Far from the Madding Crowd. By this time a pastoral period-piece, the three-hour portrait of rural Victorian England was almost universally panned (the National Board of Review, though, named it the year’s best English-language film); its style was Hardy-sturdy, its story (except regarding the fate of ironically named William Boldwood) faithful to Hardy’s, although overly romanticized—and it is doubtful that Schlesinger appreciated the danger that Nature poses, beneath an accommodating mask, in Hardy’s scheme of things. Nor did he bother much with the rural loneliness that motivates so many of the feelings and actions of Hardy’s characters. In any case, he was closer to the mark than “sensitive” Roman Polanski would prove in Tess (1980), the unsuitably impressionistic film based on Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
That noted, Schlesinger’s plodding saga is an attractive bore (Nicolas Roeg color cinematographed), and Julie Christie’s central performance, as fiercely independent Bathsheba Everdine who manages the farm that she inherits from her uncle, never quite comes into focus. None of Bathsheba’s relationships with men forcefully weighs in, and Prunella Ransome’s pathetic Fanny, by contrast, is vivid as she pleads with caddish Sergeant Troy not to abandon her. Perhaps Terence Stamp comes off best as Troy, who tries to impress Bathsheba with his prowess with his sword.
Alan Bates is adequate as shepherd Gabriel Oak, whose name admits no irony, while Peter Finch (best actor, National Board of Review) invites giggles with his over-the-top enactment of farmer Boldwood’s unrequited love for Bathsheba. I giggled also over Boldwood’s hat.