MADDING CROWD - moves at a Maddening Pace (DVD Release)

If you claim bragging rights in the period film club like I do, then you will likely enjoy "Madding," which is a 90-minute story based on the 1874 Thomas Hardy literary classic of the same name. As an honorary member of said club I will almost always gravitate to any film starring women in corsets and men wearing tails. Unfortunately, this film opened in such limited release that I was forced to wait for the DVD version before I could clap eyes on it.

Carey Mulligan (The Great Gatsby) plays beautiful and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene, who has been left a substantial inheritance by her uncle. She is fiercely independent in a time when women play very subservient roles to men. Society expects her to find a husband and settle into marriage and motherhood like a proper gentlewoman of her day. But Bathsheba hungrily jumps at an opportunity to prove her metal as a female and takes up running her estate. Yet, for all her independence she is not lacking marriageable prospects, and it's not long before three very different men are vying for her affections.

Bachelor #1 is Gabriel Oak, a down-on-his-luck farmer who tends her sheep. Belgium actor, Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) plays Oak, who's honest-to-goodness brawniness sets Bathsheba's heart aflutter, but he's broke. Bachelor #2 is Mr. William Boldwood played movingly by Michael Sheen (Kingdom of Heaven). Boldwood is the wealthy owner of the adjacent estate, who sees an opportunity to marry his attractive neighbor and their collective wealth as one. Bachelor #3 is Sergeant Francis Troy, brought to life by Tom Sturridge. The handsome, swarthy army man arrives on the scene like the appearance of a Greek god come down from Olympus to sweep Bathsheba off her feet. You guessed it - the rest of the film centers around whether the lovely lady will choose the bachelor behind door one, two or three, giving it the feel of a 19th Century version of the “Dating Game”.

Carey Mulligan is a British import who is gradually making a name for herself playing such notable roles as Winnie Geiko in the "Wall Street" sequel (2010), and the aforementioned "Gatsby". She shows promise as a rising star, but I felt that the script of "Madding" did not allow her to explore any deep acting capabilities during this film. She was playing such an iconic Hardy character that it seemed a shame not to more fully explore it, (but hey a girl's gotta eat). Michael Sheen's portrayal of Boldwood was the most captivating of the male suitors, as the somewhat older, obsessive man grasping at any chance for happiness. The rest of the cast were unimpressive and could have been plucked off the Masterpiece Theater back lot.

There are three previous film versions on Hardy's novel and I am partial to the 1998 BBC Masterpiece version starring Paloma Baeza. BBC version took its time telling Bathsheba's story and fleshing out the characters over 3 ½ hours that resulted in a fuller backdrop and a more believable progression of a story filled with ironies and spotted with macabre moments. This version had a  “Cliff Notes” feel to it because it failed to explore the idiosyncrasies or provide any substantive understanding of the characters and their actions. The heroine was left looking emotionally shallow and the male suitors flat. All said, if you haven't seen the BBC rendition you may quite happy with this rendering that does manage to capture Bathsheba's strong businesswoman side as she proves her capacity for handling her own financial affairs. 

Scottish composer, Craig Armstrong (Elizabeth the Golden Age), managed to breathe some life into the lackluster script with stirring orchestral pieces providing some emotional backdrop. Overall, die-hard period piece fans, and those who've neither read the book or seen previous versions, will likely take a shine to this monotonous stroll through the Victorian age. And, for the most part, despite falling short of its potential "Madding" was faithful to the book. But my money is still on the 1998 version if you want a fuller rendering of this sweeping story. I did manage to slog my way through to the end, simultaneously relieved that it wasn’t longer and longing for one of Mary Crawley’s narcissistic brat attacks…ahh, but that’s another period altogether.


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