Thomas Vinterberg's adaptation of Thomas Hardy's first real success is, well, middling fair. The producers must have thought: "If we're doing a smart stylish update of a staid overfamiliar English novel we need a Dogme 95 filmmaker to shake things up literally (Vinterberg is fond of the handheld shot) and figuratively (Vinterberg's The Celebration involved incest while The Hunt told the story of a man accused of child abuse)." Vinterberg's not a bad choice--he has the grave, gravid approach to storytelling that Hardy seems to demand, with the kind of unflinching eye willing to capture the novel's more disturbing nuances.
More, he has assembled a nice little cast of young intelligent actors to flesh out the story--Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene, Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak, Tom Sturridge as Cavalry Sergeant Frank Troy, the always interesting Michael Sheen as psychologically knotted William Boldwood. Mulligan, Schoenaerts, and Sturridge look about the right age for their characters; at any rate they look right for the effect Vinterberg was apparently aiming for: when Bathsheba inherits a farm from her uncle and immediately fires the farm's manager you worry for her (she looks barely old enough to go to the prom, much less manage a farm); when Troy casts heavy-lidded looks at Bathsheba you guess (correctly) that the ploy has worked with other girls--basically a party trick he's performed again and again, the execution grown smooth with practice.
Hard not to compare this to John Schlesinger's 1967 version, with Julie Christie as Bathsheba, Alan Bates as Gabriel, Stamp as Frank Troy, Peter Finch as Boldwood. Schlesinger's arguably doesn't make much sense: the characters offer and reject, couple and separate with barely a comprehensible motive between them, particularly Bathsheba--when she turns the perfectly masculine Alan Bates down it's as if she knew the more mysterious Terence Stamp was scheduled to pop up somewhere down that rutted country road. Vinterberg at least inserts a point of view, suggests however fleetingly why Gabriel finds Bathsheba so attractive (she's vivid), why she rejects him (he's not that special), why the rejection is a deadly embarrassment (women don't treat men that way). Later it becomes clear why Oaks mistrusts Boldwood: he's not just a romantic rival but a representative of the social class that looked down on him all his life, the same class whose ranks he hoped to join one day.
Despite which John Schlesinger's 1967 version already is a smart stylish update of Hardy's novel--itself a familiar work of literature, but hardly what I'd call staid. And while Vinterberg works harder at rendering psychological nuance, Schlesinger seems more successful at capturing the poetry--the sense you get when reading Hardy that vast forces surround his characters as they cling, short-lived and feeble, to their tiny plot of unplowed soil.
Take for example the tryst between Bathsheba and Frank Troy--in Vinterberg's the meeting happens in an enchanted forest, their intimacy enhanced by the crowding, enclosing trees; in Schlesinger's they're ants crawling along the ridges of giant hills, undulating waves of rock and soil that don't seem to care if the lovers kiss or talk or are skewered. When Stamp charges at Christie with saber aimed half an inch to the side of her ear (funny form of flirtation but apparently works), the camera follows with reckless abandon; Stamp's Troy seems to enjoy more than enough room for his ebullient braggadocio, the hills around him having the simultaneous effect of both mocking his chivalry and rendering it larger than life.
The best adapters of Hardy seem to understand: nature is not some gorgeous woman to be rouged and lipsticked and kissed but a force to be acknowledged, feared. The acknowledgement happens early in Michael Winterbottom's Jude (1996), the black-and-white opening shot where Jude and his father toil in an endless muddy field shot and lit to look like the far side of the moon; it happens late in Roman Polanski's Tess (1979) when hunted by police they stop to rest at Stonehenge. Tess (Nastassja Kinski) for all the turmoil and suffering in her life pauses to touch the pitiless stones: she senses the immeasurable reaches of time they represent, the story so much more ancient than her own.
Vinterberg with his young-looking cast and not inconsiderable filmmaking skill has created a fine and lively love story, perfect for big screen and mass audiences. It's not quite Hardy, though--his poetry here is more prosaic, his powers of evocation greatly diminished. You might compare the two versions the way you'd compare their lead actors: one a lovely waif, heartrending in her vulnerability yet full of intelligence and fire; the other a full-grown woman. You pick the Bathsheba you prefer.
First published in Businessworld, 10.23.15