Review of ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ and ‘Wild’. Part of an occasional movie review series.

Another long haul, another couple of movies. I am normally drawn to science fiction, films with big bangs. It takes real willpower to watch something less ‘popcorn’. Today, feeling self-righteous, I chose two worthier movies: ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’, based on Thomas Hardy’s novel, one of his least miserable tales, and ‘Wild’, the true story of a woman who confronts her demons by walking the Pacific Coast Route.

I have talked before about the distinct lack of true feminist movies in modern cinema. Even those that claim feminist credentials, such as ‘Mad Max; Fury Road’, fall into some horrible clichéd traps. But today I got the opportunity to meet two women, one fictional, one real, who fall squarely into the category of feminists.

Hardy has a reputation as a misogynist; his female characters are mostly memorable because they suffer so badly, normally at the hands of men. Priests, toffs, soldiers, mayors, they all treat their womenfolk appallingly. To be raped, abandoned, even sold. Poor Tess, she of the D’Urbervilles, is probably the most memorable. I have her image, brought to life by Nastassja Kinski in Polanski’s version, etched on my memory. Forced first to eat a strawberry from the hands of the arch-cad Alec D’Urberville and then rape on a dark night on The Chase.  She is a classic, tragic Hardy heroine, fallen so far that she ends up on the gallows. In a final act of misogyny, Hardy gifts Angel Clare, Tess’s beau, her younger sister as consolation prize.

‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ is a little different. It features Bathsheba Everdene, not a victim, but a women of independent means. She can manage just fine without a man, thank you very much. She smirks when Farmer Boldwood offers her, as well as 400 acres, a piano in return for her hand in marriage. This is because she already owns one. Bathsheba is played in this version by an actress  with strong feminist credentials, Carey Mulligan. She has a hard act to follow, because who can forget Bathsheba played by the magical Julie Christie? Carey, possessed of a wasp-like waist (and lips), strides around determinedly in tight-fitting dresses and leather jackets, clearly the 19th Century equivalent of skinny jeans. She rides a horse like a man, eschewing side saddle. She holds her own in a male world, running a successful farm and bartering grain prices with gentlemen farmers. At the time Hardy wrote the novel, this must have been ground-breaking stuff.

Hardy depicts Bathsheba in the novel as vain, willful and flighty. And Carey’s version shows traces of these characteristics; she stupidly sends Farmer Boldwood a Valentine card, when she really has no interest in him. But in this film Carey depicts Bathsheba as a much more intelligent, cool-headed woman. In the novel, Bathsheba rejects Gabriel Oak’s early marriage proposal with haughty disdain. She makes it clear he is beneath her. In the film, it is a gentler and more considered rejection. She simply says she is not ready to marry.

But, despite this encouraging start, Hardy just cannot resist turning Bathsheba into a bit of a weak female caricature. The film follows suit. She literally melts at the first sight of dashing Sergeant Troy, in his red uniform and big, curved sword (get the Freudian reference?). She completely overlooks the fact he is a complete dick. Whereas poor dependable Gabriel Oak, and dull-but-rich Farmer Boldwood, never even make it to first base, Bathsheba more or less lets Troy feel her up at their second meeting. And, in the film, they seem to be wedded and bedded by the following evening. So much for her high morals and independent character. Mind you, she realizes Troy is a cad pretty quickly; he guzzles brandy at the reception and encourages farmhands to sing bawdy songs. After Troy is conveniently removed from the equation, Bathsheba, at the final dénouement, falls into the arms of dependable, monosyllabic Gabriel Oak; he is the only man who truly ever loved her.  Mind you, Hardy more or less makes her beg him to marry her, his misogynistic petticoats again showing.  It is really not much of an improvement on ‘Taming of the Shrew’.

The film is great though. Lots of sunny Wessex scenes, with plenty of lens flare, hair blowing in the wind and other truly cinematic camerawork. The only thing that jars is the unrealistic nature of farm scenes. Gigantic fields, devoid of hedgerows, clearly ploughed by titanic tractor, stand in for 19th Century hay meadows. Unfortunately, it takes more than a bit of manky grass flung on fertiliser-fed, pesticide-laced fields to achieve realism. Clothes suffer the same fate as antique cars in period TV shows; they look too new. Hardy’s peasants are too well dressed. Otherwise, a touching film that will have the toughest, most cynical guys in tears, even if the lead man looks more Scandinavian than West Country.

‘Wild’ is brilliant. Any film that, early on, features a close-up of the protagonist’s ‘field dump’, geologist-speak for ‘outdoor pooh’, gets a big thumbs-up from me. I had no idea that women actually poohed, let alone in the countryside, so that came as a bit of a shock. I can also think of only one other pooh-centric film, ‘Pink Flamingos’ by John Waters, and that is seriously weird. (OK, ‘Trainspotting’ is another.)

Cheryl Strayed, an appropriate name, given her slutty behaviour, undertakes a mammoth walk in North America, to heal herself. This woman goes seriously off the rails after the death of her beloved mother, played by the luminous Laura Dern (shamefully consigned to David Lynch films after starring in ‘Jurassic Park’). Cheryl descends into heroin and cheats on her husband numerous times, often in the backroom of the restaurant where she waitresses.  Ironically, Cheryl is played by saccharine-sweet Reese Witherspoon, her of ‘Legally Blonde’ fame. My cynical side suggests Reese took this role as penance for her appalling, and well publicised, behaviour to traffic cops (‘don’t you know who I am?’). Henry Fonda, renowned for good guy roles, made a similar career move when he played the baddie in ‘Once Upon A Time in The West’. Arnie did it, in reverse, for ‘Kindergarten Cop’. Whatever her motivation, Reese, and the director, do an excellent job. This is a film that totally avoids cliché and sentimentality. The landscapes do not intrude on the story; long drawn out sunsets and mountain spectacles are avoided. In fact, some of the Pacific Coast Trail follows noisy highways and looks totally crap. Camouflaged rednecks wander the forest on some parts. In the style of ‘Deliverance’, they carry bows and arrows and exude menace. Cheryl survives this unwanted male attention, but the film depicts the fear of rape very well. It takes a special type of filmmaker to successfully transmit that fear to male viewers.

Cheryl’s grieving is finally properly triggered close to the end of the trek, by a conversation with a young child. She drops to her knees and weeps. Anyone who has ever undertaken a tremendous physical exertion, like a marathon, will know how the slightest kind gesture can trigger overwhelming emotions. And, for some strange reason, it is often strangers that do it. I think most of us can empathise.

Films that make us care are powerful and memorable. So thank goodness I skipped ‘Avengers; Age of Ultron’, the memory of which does not last beyond the foyer, and instead plumped for these two. I recommend both highly.

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