Far From The Madding Crowd - The New York Times Review - May 8, 1998

TV Weekend: The 'Madding Crowd' Is Getting Crowded


Sitting down to a "Masterpiece Theater" rendition of a Thomas Hardy novel can feel oddly like confronting an unwelcome exam. Reading the book was wonderful; you were captivated by the all-too-human characters and the sweep of great riddles of destiny set against the quaint scapes of 19th-century Dorset. 

But now, try as you might to sit back and enjoy, you find yourself having to dissect and compare, to judge what works and what doesn't in approximating brilliantly written prose. 

In the case of "Far From the Madding Crowd," which will be shown in two two-hour segments starting Sunday night at 9, your predicament is even more complex: hovering at the edges of memory is not only a classic book -- Hardy's first popular success, published in 1874 -- but also a 1967 film that, despite the critics' wildly varying opinions, included memorable scenes played against memorable coastal vistas by four true movie stars. 

In that John Schlesinger film, Julie Christie, miscast or not, was Bathsheba Everdene, the headstrong young woman who inherits a sprawling farm and insists on overseeing it herself. Alan Bates was Gabriel Oak, consummate man of the earth and Bathsheba's long-suffering attendant. Peter Finch was William Boldwood, the well-to-do neighbor whose love for Bathsheba drives him mad. And Terrence Stamp was Sgt. Frank Troy, the bad boy whose seduction of Bathsheba contorts the life of an entire community. 

Strangely, and to its great credit, this new "Far From the Madding Crowd," which was produced by Granada Television in Britain and WGBH in Boston, does not simply survive the viewer's tendency to compare and second-guess; it thrives upon it. 

At almost every turn of the deliciously gradual tale of romantic chaos, the new version is just as visually striking as the 1967 film -- some of the locations are virtually identical -- and is more naturally rendered dramatically, with a rough language truer to Hardy's blend of poetry and rural speech. 

The memorable scenes are, for the most part, the same: Gabriel's loss of his own farm, as an inexperienced dog fails to stop his sheep from going over a cliff; the fire that threatens Bathsheba's hayricks and brings Gabriel into her employ; Troy's wooing of Bathsheba with a display of swordsmanship that borders on the sadistic; Boldwood's various sessions of obsessive entreaty. But whereas in the old movie these scenes usually came across as tours de force, here they are more carefully woven in as vivid highlights of a tapestry on which the shadows are important, too. 

For American viewers, it probably helps that this "Far From the Madding Crowd" features actors with largely unfamiliar faces. Nathaniel Parker, a quieter actor than Bates, shrewdly portrays Gabriel's tenacity in a way that builds and is eventually surprising, never cloying. As striking as Finch was as Boldwood, Nigel Terry, a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran, has an addled air of entitlement that makes more sense in the role. And although he is not the sword handler Stamp was, Jonathan Firth makes Troy every bit an equal scoundrel, with even scarier impulses. 

Men aside, the success of any "Far From the Madding Crowd" turns on the actress who plays Bathsheba, and Paloma Baeza perfectly serves the purposes of this new film version. She's in her 20s, as Ms. Christie was in 1967, but she looks younger than Ms. Christie did, which helps put the production in better sync with viewers' memories of the book: it's more understandable that we care deeply about Bathsheba despite her extraordinarily bad, even cruel choices. 

Like Ms. Christie, Ms. Baeza is gorgeous; unlike Ms. Christie, she is deceptively so, with dark, curly hair and broader features. Therefore, the male characters' reactions to her vary more believably. And beyond age and beauty, Ms. Baeza, like Ms. Christie, can act effectively in a range of moods. 

In addition to the skilled performances of the headliners, what makes this "Far From the Madding Crowd" work so well is that the bit players -- the farm workers, the servant girls, the children -- are given significant time onscreen. Their colloquial banter is allowed to go on, as are their songs; the camera lingers on the knowing looks they flash behind the back of their mistress. As in Hardy's book, the large meanings reside with these characters as much as with the principals. 

Hardy took his title from Thomas Gray's great poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." In fashioning what can finally only approach the novel in wisdom, the creators of this "Far From the Madding Crowd" seem at least to have taken their inspiration, with some contemporary irony, from the full stanza in question: "Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife/Their sober wishes never learned to stray;/ Along the cool sequestered vale of life/They kept the noiseless tenor of their way." 

Broadcast notes: 
Far From the Madding Crowd 
PBS, Sunday night 
(Channel 13, New York, at 9) 

A co-production of Granada Television and WGBH/Boston. Written by Philomena
McDonagh and based on the novel by Thomas Hardy. Directed by Nick Renton.
Hilary Bevan Jones, producer. Gub Neal and Antony Root, executive producers
for Granada Television; Rebecca Eaton, executive producer for WGBH. 
CAST: Paloma Baeza (Bathsheba Everdene), Nathaniel Parker (Gabriel Oak),
Nigel Terry (Boldwood), Jonathan Firth (Sgt. Frank Troy), Sean Gilder
(Joseph Poorgrass), Phillip Joseph (Jan Coggan), Elizabeth Estensen (Mrs.
Coggan), Tracy Keating (Liddy), Kevin Kibbey (Billy Smallbury) and Andy
Robb (Mark Clark).

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