Film review: Far From The Madding Crowd | Unfriended

FAR From The Madding Crowd is a beautiful and beautifully acted adaptation, carrying off the trick of being both timeless and ultra-modern

Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd. Picture: Contributed

Far From The Madding Crowd (12A)

Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg

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Starring: Carey Mulligan, Michael Sheen, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple
Rating: ****

It takes a special talent to make a period film that transcends the corseted confines of the stereotypical British-made costume drama. Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility), Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina) and True Detective director Carey Fukunaga (Jane Eyre) all pulled off superlative adaptations of literary classics by respecting the spirit of their source material but being bold in the way they told their stories on screen. Interestingly, Thomas Hardy’s work has been relatively well served in this respect over the years. John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd, Roman Polanski’s Tess (1979) and Michael Winterbottom’s Jude (1996) all brought their respective source novels to life with a lived-in quality that felt pertinent to the moment of their making, not constrained by some mandate to turn the cinema screen into a mausoleum for bloodless characters adhering to outmoded ideals.

To that list must now be added Thomas Vinterberg’s new take on Far From the Madding Crowd, the first since Schlesinger’s film gifted cinema audiences with the luminous presence of Julie Christie as Hardy’s forthright heroine Bathsheba Everdene. Like that film it’s an adaptation that feels ultra-modern and simultaneously timeless, a trick pulled off largely by Vinterberg’s ability to capture the bucolic, mist-shrouded haziness of Hardy’s Wessex while letting the complex emotional turmoil raging within the characters bleed into the drama. Vinterberg – one of the original architects of the Dogme 95 manifesto – certainly brings a vibrancy and emotional directness familiar from the likes of The Celebration and The Hunt to Hardy’s tale of gender politics, conflicting loyalties and the frequently irrational machinations of the heart.

He’s aided greatly by a cast who are more than up to the challenge of confronting their cinematic forebears head on, starting with Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba, the hardworking, headstrong young woman whose inheritance of a farm provides her with the independence she’s always craved and the attentions of three men she’s done her best to spurn. Though it’s tempting to draw a modern parallel with that other cinematic Everdene currently dominating cinema (The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen was inspired by, and named for, Hardy’s heroine), Mulligan’s no-nonsense portrayal is tough but playful, brimming with humour and self-confidence, but also delicately shaded, ensuring that her for all her outward bravado, Bathsheba remains as complicated and conflicted as anyone else about the value of human company.

These doubts and dilemmas come to the fore as three suitors enter her life. The first is the angelic Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a strapping sheep farmer who is quickly disavowed of his naïve belief that his modest holdings will impress Bathsheba enough to enter into marriage with him. When he fails to protect his own flock, losing everything in the process – a scene Vinterberg films with distressing explicitness – his sense of failure combined with his reversal of fortune leads him to devote his life to protecting Bathsheba’s interests after she hires him as her new shepherd. Recalling the reticent bruiser he played in Rust & Bone, Schoenaerts’ brooding presence anchors the film as Bathsheba finds herself connecting in conflicting ways with her wealthy neighbour, William Boldwood (Sheen), who becomes infatuated with her after an act of frivolity on her part is misinterpreted as potentially amorous overture, and with Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge), an arrogant, peacocking soldier to whose otherwise disdainful presence she feels irrationally drawn.

Sheen in particular is great here. He brings a nuanced authority to an entirely decent older man. Boldwood’s past heartache has damaged him in a way he can’t quite articulate but he’s convinced himself that Bathsheba holds the key to his salvation. That’s a burden she’s instinctively unwilling to carry and it may be part of the reason for her attraction to Troy, whose infamous sword-wielding seduction scene – immortalised by Terrence Stamp in the earlier version – remains intact. But he too has been damaged by a past romantic travail and while Sturridge’s boorish portrayal makes it hard to see what it is about him that captures Bathsheba’s fancy, the film uses this discrepancy to emphasise how easily even the most sensible head can be tricked by the heart into committing to the wrong person.

Vinterberg is canny enough to understand that it’s this emotional hell that continues to resonate. The uncertainties and recriminations, the missed opportunities, the mistakes that echo for years... we’re fated to repeat this stuff, the film seems to be saying, despite our best attempts to control the chaos of our own lives. Hardy’s nothing if not a great chronicler of these woes, but the film also traps us in a dreamy hinterland where people can also find their way to the ones they’re meant to be with in spite of themselves. Tragedy, it turns out, doesn’t always have to be tragic.

Unfriended (15)

Directed by: Levan Gabriadze

Starring: Shelley Hennig, Renee Olstead, Moses Storm

Rating: ****

The horror genre thrives on limitations, particularly when they can be used to exploit contemporary fears. Perhaps this is why Unfriended proves so much fun. Taking place entirely on a laptop screen as a Skype call between a group of teens turns deadly, it’s a social media slasher movie that makes brilliant use of the confines of a MacBook display by repurposing its banal functions to ratchet up scares in playful ways. The click of a mouse, the sound of text being typed, the grainy quality of video chat, a Spotify playlist on shuffle, the amplified four-note melody of an incoming Skype call… the ambience and aesthetics of the tied-to-a-screen existence that comprises most of our daily lives has been imaginatively utilised by director Levan Gabriadze to transcend the ubiquitous found-footage device that long ago reduced contemporary horror to a series of boring shaky-cam shots.

Not that there isn’t some found footage in here. The film starts with the caught-on-iPhone suicide of Laura Barnes (Heather Sossaman), a girl whose desperate act is revealed to be the result of a spot of viral video humiliation perpetrated against her when she was drunk at a party. The film, however, quickly establishes that these videos are being watched by her friend, Blaire (Shelley Hennig), on her computer, a year on from the event. What follows never leaves the perspective of Blaire’s screen as a video chat (pictured right) between her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm) and their friends is interrupted by someone with access to their dead friend’s Facebook account who seems intent on exacting some horror movie-style retribution.

Anyone well versed in J-Horror and the Saw films will spot their influence in the way Unfriended updates their supernatural tropes and punitive moral extremism for an age of cyber bullying. Like a digital scurvy, the internet’s ability to open old wounds by revealing past sins to the world is something this movie taps into – the film’s technique only enhancing its effectiveness by using onscreen cursors to guide the eye to relevant parts of the screen and the click-through nature of our multi-app digital existence to disseminate the film’s plot in intriguing ways.

The technique isn’t unfamiliar. America’s most popular sitcom, Modern Family, recently featured an episode made in this way, and the short film Noah – depicting a teen’s online break-up with his girlfriend via his laptop and iPhone – played at the Toronto film festival back in 2013. But Unfriended proves its viability as a cinematic storytelling device – and as a way of making gimmicky horror interesting again.

Heaven Adores You (12A)

Directed by: Nickolas Dylan Rossi

Rating: ***

The title of this documentary tribute to Elliott Smith (below) is somewhat indicative of the too-delicate-for-this-world narrative fans have adopted to counter the singer-songwriter’s horribly violent (and somewhat mysterious) demise in October 2003. Best known to the wider public for Miss Misery, his haunting, Oscar-nominated song for Good Will Hunting, Smith emerged from the post-Nirvana hardcore scene of the Pacific Northwest as a writer of painfully raw folksongs that dealt with heartache and loss. But like Kurt Cobain before him, he was unprepared for the success and attention his music brought him. Boasting a wealth of archival footage as well as new interviews with friends, family members and colleagues, the film deals comprehensively with his development as an artist, but when it comes to the many dark times in his life, recollections are couched in euphemisms that acknowledge his drug use and suicidal tendencies, without divulging many details. That’s perhaps understandable for a film determined to transcend the tabloid salaciousness of his death from two stab wounds – perhaps self-inflicted, perhaps not – to his heart. But even for fans, it can feel frustratingly incomplete. Still there’s no denying the power of his music, which has a rare ability to feel intensely personal to both singer and listener alike and in the end, that’s why the film succeeds: by functioning – to quote one of Smith’s final songs – as a fond farewell to a friend.

Elsa & Fred (12A)

Directed by: Michael Radford

Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer, Marcia Gay Harding

Rating: **

Though a small notch above The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its ilk, the joys of seeing Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer spark off each other as opposites-attract pensioners in this romantic drama are quickly diminished by Il Postino director Michael Radford’s unwillingness to define their characters beyond their surface quirks. These basically amount to MacLaine functioning as a sort of manic pixie dream granny whose lust for life coaxes Plummer’s irascible widower out of his apartment after he moves in next door. Easily guessable revelations duly follow.

Samba (15)

Directed by: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano

Starring: Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim

Rating: **

French directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano follow up their smash-hit odd-couple comedy Untouchable with another movie that tries to highlight the plight of immigrants within a slick commercial framework. Omar Sy takes the title role as an illegal Senegalese immigrant who falls foul of the law and winds up in a detention centre, whereupon he meets a hapless volunteer (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recovering from career burnout. Unfortunately, the cross-racial relationship that subsequently flourishes feels trite, and some ill-judged comedy flourishes (mostly involving Tahar Rahim as Samba’s fellow immigrant) jar with the serious points the film is trying to make.

Monsters: Dark Continent (15)

Directed by: Tom Green

Starring: Johnny Harris, Joe Dempsie, Sam Keeley

Rating: **

A needless sequel to Godzilla director Gareth Edwards’ sci-fi debut from 2010, Monsters: Dark Continent feels like someone had an unproduced script for a war movie lying around and decided to stick aliens in the background to milk the dubious franchise potential of an innovative indie hit. Despite being more visibly present, the aliens feel more incidental this time, with debut writer/director Tom Green using their existence in an unspecified Middle Eastern warzone to comment on the nature of US foreign policy. It’s tedious in the extreme.