In a famous chapter of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, the
heroine Bathsheba Everdene looks at herself in the mirror,
contemplating her romantic virtues and her personal fate.That depiction
of vanity is one of the high points of John Schlesinger’s 1967 film
version as wondrously embodied by Julie Christie.
Warner’s new DVD of Schlesinger’s film comes at the right time after Baz Luhrmann’s ludicrous Australia was
mistaken for “good oldfashioned filmmaking” to instruct us on how to
make and enjoy a movie epic. Lurhmann’s no Schlesinger and Schlesinger
was no David Lean whose sweeping panoramas Schlesinger imitates in his
film depiction of Hardy’s English countryside setting,Wessex.Yet,
better than Luhrmann, Schlesinger was making a national/cultural epic,
using Hardy’s book the way Lean had used Dickens.The cast—Christie,
Terence Stamp as Sgt.Troy, Peter Finch as Boldwood and Alan Bates as
Gabriel Oak—had made their reputations in contemporary British
class-critique dramas. Here they adapt to Hardy’s historical version of
English class analysis.The result was simultaneously modern and
traditional and entrancing.
Schlesinger’s Hardy celebration rests on Christie—then a box-office star after Doctor Zhivago and Darling. Her
anachronistic Swinging London quality is wrong for Bathesheba, yet
she’s such an astonishing screen presence— a fearsome idea of what
vanity entails—that she keeps the movie watchable. Schlesinger doesn’t
get a rich performance out of Christie as Lean had in Zhivago and Altman would later in Mc- Cabe & Mrs. Miller; still, she’s a convincing femme fatale, and the men who fall for her richly embody various male vulnerabilities.
(Poor Luhrmann, Nicole Kidman is no Christie and Australia became
an epic travesty.) Hardy’s melodramatic power surveys in Schlesinger’s
narrative—though never as splendid as Lean’s Dickens—nevertheless yield
a great innovative sequence where red-uniformed Troy displays
swordsmanship to Bathsheba, symbolizing his sexual prowess. Here,
cinematographer Nicolas Roeg helps make Madding Crowd a rapturous color
(When Roeg turned to directing we lost of the all-time great, sensual color cinematographers. As in Petulia and Fahrenheit 451, he was to Christie what William Daniels was to Garbo.) Madding Crowd offers
deep satisfactions despite some weaknesses. Chiefly, it illustrates a
cultural and emotional continuity absent from Luhrmann’s Australia and
from most contemporary movies.This DVD preserves English cinema’s last
great moment until the arrival of Terence Davies and Mike Leigh.