Far from the Madding Crowd Movie is Hardy on Speed

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Fox Searchlight, 129 minutes, PG-13.
* * *
Although it's literary blasphemy to admit, I have always preferred Thomas Hardy to Charles Dickens. Dickens was funnier and his stories contained more action, but I like Hardy better for the complex interior lives of his characters, and the fact that his women were more than wallpaper. Hardy's women are independent spirits full of resolve and spunk. Think of Tess Darbeyfield, Sue Bridehead (Jude the Obscure), or Eustacia Vye (Return of the Native). And how many Victorian literary heroines can compare with Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd?  Even her name was scandalous in Hardy's time. Bathsheba was an unlikely name for a 19th century daughter given that her ancient counterpart was the Hittite woman with whom King David committed adultery and impregnated (with Solomon). David also engineered her soldier husband's death in battle when he couldn't convince him to have sex with Bathsheba. It took moxie to name a sympathetic character Bathsheba.
Hardy played with the Biblical story. A soldier, temptation, lust, and wisdom factor into  Far from the Madding Crowd, but not the ways they were recounted in the Old Testament. Biblical authorities differ on whether Bathsheba was willingly or unwillingly seduced by King David, but Bathsheba Everdene is neither temptress nor victim. Though men desire her, she longs for independence. She is intelligent, strong-willed, high-spirited, and stubborn–traits that are both blessings and curses. She is, for example, often too clever and acts impulsively on the presumption that others will know her mind as well as she.
This foregrounding is essential for evaluating the latest film version of Far from the Madding Crowd. This is the fourth full-length motion picture of Hardy's novel and it shares the strengths and shortcomings of its predecessors. Bathsheba is such an intriguing personality that one can see why directors are drawn to it. The 1967 British production with Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Terence Stamp is the most famous attempt, though the BBC's 1998 four-part series (which aired in the US on Masterpiece Theater) is probably the most successful. Locate Thomas Vinterberg's new production somewhere in the middle of the pack.
First the good news: Forget Julie Christie–Carey Mulligan is a superior Bathsheba. She plays frothy and determined equally, thus is totally believable as a woman of both superior intellect and impetuousness. Physically she is desirable without intending to be so, and a fireball of energy that burns those who get too close. We are convinced that if any woman can run her own farm in patriarchal Victorian England, it would be she. In the story, three men are ensnared by Bathsheba's magnetism: loyal shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthew Schoenaerts), caddish soldier Francis ("Frank") Troy (Tom Sturridge), and steadfast bachelor farmer William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). Each wishes to wed and bed Bathsheba, though two of the suitors are decidedly as unwise as King David. Schoenaerts is also outstanding and plays Oak as Everdene's equal in both kind intentions and pigheadedness, as if he is the anvil to her hammer. (Did Hardy play off the Bathsheba's name—Hebrew for "daughter of the oath"–to come up with Oak?) Sheen is terrific as Boldwood, Everdene's older, socially gauche suitor. Indeed, he's so sympathetic he breaks your heart. Also praiseworthy is the musical score. This movie gets folk music right, because Vinterberg had the commonsense to hire Eliza Carthy as music advisor and include her and her band on the soundtrack.
The not-so-good: Sturridge is a wooden soldier as Troy and he's no Terence Stamp in the glamour department either. His flat demeanor is also frequently the feel of this film. It is gorgeous on the surface, but not much actually happens. To return to an earlier point, Hardy's novels are often about internal struggles and these require time–like a 460-page novel or a four-part BBC mini series–to show how characters grow and change. Try to cram this into just two hours and what we get is Far from the Madding Crowd on amphetamines. This means it's obvious from the get-go who Bathsheba should be with, and just as obvious what will end badly–even if you've never read the book. Vinterberg tries to give us the feel of 19th century rural life, but these come off as  random snapshots disconnected from affairs of the heart and mind. 
Far from the Madding Crowd is ultimately a classic middling picture–neither great nor bad. It's certainly a pleasant enough way to pass a few hours, but it lacks the transcendence of Hardy's novel. –Rob Weir




Overlooked Films: The Unknown Known

Directed by Errol Morris
History Films, 110 minutes, PG-13
* * * *

If you think Dick Cheney is scary, Rumsfeld is worse!
This review debuts a new blog feature: films I overlooked at the cinema for a variety of reasons: a short run, too busy, tepid word-of-mouth, lost in the shuffle…. As I recall, the Errol Morris film The Unknown Known didn’t stick around very long, though I probably also ducked it because it’s a documentary and I simply don’t find many of them visually distinctive enough to justify increasingly high theater admission prices. But I can say that this one is certainly worthy of adding to your online or rental queue. Its look at the Machiavellian soul of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is scarier than a slasher film and oilier than West Texas.

The very title boots us down a slippery slope. Remember when—in the middle of hearings on Monica Lewinsky-- Bill Clinton confounded wordsmiths with his statement, “It depends upon what your definition of is, is?” Clinton is a paragon of clarity compared to Rumsfeld, who defined the “unknown known” as “things you thought you know that you didn’t know.” This tips us off immediately that Rumsfeld is a different breed of cat than the last Secretary of Defense Morris interviewed: Robert McNamara. In Morris’ Oscar-winning The Fog of War (2004), McNamara admitted that Vietnam was a mistake. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a Rumsfeld confessional on Iraq, Abu Ghraib, the body armor conflab, or anything else. What we get is something more frightening—an obviously brilliant man whose arrogance and ideology led him to abuse the English language rather than consider that he might have erred. Think upon that statement. Who among us has not been spectacularly wrong on occasion? Not Rumsfeld—at least not in his mind. His explanation for the reason we found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? “An absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” If such a statement doesn’t chill you, ponder upon Morris’s follow-up query as to whether such a belief was carte blanche to pursue any belief at any time as if evidence was irrelevant. Rumsfeld has a standard response whenever he paints himself into a corner: “You’re chasing the wrong rabbit on this one.”

In many ways, Rumsfeld was prepped for such obfuscating arrogance. Like many rightwing ideologues, he came to power (U.S. Congress 1963-69) in opposition to the counterculture and social change movements of the Sixties—as befitted a 50s-bred conservative (Eagle Scout, World War II, Princeton, Georgetown Law). His big break came when Nixon appointed him to head the Office of Economic Opportunity and then as ambassador to NATO. Like Nixon, Rumsfeld recorded everything he thought or did. Although Rumsfeld dismisses personal tapings as nothing more than organizing thoughts in progress, the 20,000+ sharply worded memos he sent as George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense (2001-06) instead suggest an inflated sense of self-importance and, perhaps, a dash of Nixonian paranoia. (Rumsfeld also served as Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff and then his Secretary of Defense from 1975-77. He also mentored Dick Cheney!)

Part of Errol Morris’ brilliance lies with his ability to stay in the background rather than grandstanding like Michael Moore. He allows us to hear (and often see via cutouts and superimposed script) Rumsfeld’s own words. And what words they are. Rumsfeld is, at turns, erudite and dissembling. He is clearly a highly intelligent individual, but also one so enamored with his own cleverness that he occasionally outwits himself. The film ends with Rumsfeld unable to decipher correctly his own “unknown known” formulation or explain why he agreed to be interviewed—a fitting end for one who was fired in 2006 after he ran out of excuses.

Morris’ documentary is equal parts compelling and chilling. Not since Henry Kissinger have we seen a figure of such intellect guided by such an amoral compass. I can’t promise you will enjoy this film, but I can state that it’s an object lesson in why so many American citizens are cynical about politics. It’s also a testament on how a skilled director can document without preaching. Morris is like a polished prosecutor who allows the accused to convict himself.—Rob Weir


Raya Brass Band Pumps Up the Noise and the Fun

This Train is Now
* * * ½

The metro New York-based Raya Brass Band is more Balkan than Brooklyn—sort of what you’d get if you merged a hora with a village riot. This high-energy quintet is built around instruments designed to pump up the noise: saxophone, tuba, trumpet, accordion, and drums. Tunes like “Locks and Latches” aim to get your body limber and your feet moving and even when the pace slows, as in “For Mia,” the tempo remains jumpy in the way that a carousel horse elevates and descends. Dance tempos dominate. "Bump" opens with thumping drums, segues to a muscular brass blast, then settles into its namesake staccato rhythm, one with playful echoes of drum and tuba. The Balkan-flavored "Shapkarevo Kasapsko Oro" conjures mental images of a frenzied village fest in which locals take turns trying to one-up each other in the dance spotlight. A personal favorite is the aptly named "Riff Cloud," in which melodic hooks are tossed about to see what can be made of them. This band throws a bit of everything at you: some Balkan jazz, some Dixieland, hints of punk, and on the title track some melody lines that sound like a mariachi band at one moment and faintly North African the next.

The Raya Brass Band will appear at the Flywheel in Easthampton on May 21 at 7:30 and at Thunder Road in Somerville on May 22.