Theme: Temptation, Seduction, Salvation
BBC Films in collaboration with Fox Searchlight Pictures has brought to the big screen Thomas Hardy’s Victorian novel, Far From the Madding Crowd. In this beautiful and haunting adaptation, director Thomas Vinterberg has succeeded in capturing the story of Bathsheba Everdeen and the beguiling of her three suitors.
By naming his protagonist Bathsheba and using elements of the biblical Bathsheba’s story as a framework (beautiful woman married to a solider, captivates the heart of a wealthy neighbor, resulting in the murder of her husband) Hardy sets his novel free from confinement to 1870 Dorset England and makes it a timeless tale of temptation, seduction and ultimately salvation.
The opening scenes of Far From the Madding Crowd are beautiful, pastoral and evocative. Norcombe Hill appears as a timeless place filled with Edenic images: a man and a woman, a shepherd and his flock, a farm and its animals, a new day and a first love, a sunset and a rainbow of promise.
The man, Gabriel Oak is the pastor of the flock of sheep. His name reflects his character; one sent from heaven and an oak of righteousness. The woman he falls in love with is the lively, penniless Bathsheba Everdeen. She has come to Norcombe Hill to work on her Aunt’s neighboring farm.
In this idyllic place Gabriel proposes marriage to Bathsheba, offering her all that he has and a life filled with promise. Bathsheba refuses the offer saying she is too “restless” for this bucolic life. There is something more she is after and so Eden is lost, night comes, and in the night death enters.
Old George, Gabriel’s faithful sheep dog awakens him in the night. Sensing something is terribly wrong Gabriel sets out only to discover the fence to the sheepfold broken and the flock missing. Following the sound of Young George’s barking he comes to a horrific sight. The young untrainable sheep dog has driven the flock over the cliff and all the sheep lie dead on the beach below.
Gabriel loses everything in an instant. His untrainable dog makes one mistake and all is lost. One can feel his anger, pain and deep anguish. The scene is so gripping because there is a deeper truth imbedded in it. This is what the “fall of man” looks like. One mistake and the flock are lost. God’s heart breaks as he gazes on what death has done to his sheep.
The scene also foreshadows what lies ahead. The “untrainable” Bathsheba, who doesn’t think Mr. Oak can tame her, will have to go through much heartache and have her own encounter with death; for she has chosen a world outside Norcombe Hill, a land East of Eden.
Bathsheba inherits her family estate in Weatherby, making her an independent woman of some means. Intending to make her farm the finest, she is almost destroyed at the outset when a fire threatens her farm.
Providentially, Gabriel arrives at the moment the barn catches fire and he saves the barn thus savingBathsheba. Seeing her need of Gabriel she hires him as her shepherd, the great irony being she believes she is in charge and he is just a humble servant in her flock. Her pride prevents her from seeing him as the true shepherd, the one who sacrificially gives himself and watches over her in love.
Bathsheba begins a flirtation with her neighbor, Mr. Boldwood. It escalates when on a lark she sends him a valentine. Until then the wealthy older man has kept his distance from Bathsheba, but the provocative card ignites something in his heart that is sealed when he sees her bathing the sheep with Oak.
Boldwood invites Bathsheba to his immense estate and there proposes marriage to her, offering her security, comfort, and everything money can buy. Bathsheba’s response is similar to the one she gave Gabriel . . . ”I am not ready, let me think”. Flirting with the world is different than being owned by it and that is how she perceives a marriage to Mr. Boldwood or any other man would be. She wants to be a woman of independence.
Independent she may be, but she has need of a shepherd. Once again destruction threatens Bathsheba.Her flock breaking their fence in the night wanders into a field of clover; by morning they are dying in the field. The only one who can save them has just been fired by his mistress for speaking truth to her. Truth her vanity did not want to hear.
The scene of Gabriel saving Bathsheba’s flock is a beautiful metaphor. These are sheep who have gone through the water, been immersed and cleansed by their shepherd and are now in danger of dying. There is one and only one who can pierce their side in the exact spot and bring them back to life.
The rescue is followed by a beautiful harvest dinner. Yet Bathsheba is still not willing to leave Gabriel at the head of her table. Nor is she content with Mr. Boldwood who assumes the place. She dismisses him once again as she walks him home in the night. She is quite comfortable now walking in darkness and it’sat this vulnerable place where temptation with the world is over, something more dangerous intrudes . . . seduction of the flesh.
It happens so quickly; before Bathsheba even sees his face she is entangled with him. One look in his eyes, one flattering word about her beauty and all the reserves she has carefully erected are torn down. She goes to meet Sergeant Troy in the hollow by the ferns willingly like a lamb being led to slaughter.
Oak tries to warn her to stay away, for he sees the man has no conscience. Bathsheba can hear none of it. She has excelled in beguiling others, now she is the beguiled. Only after marrying Troy out of passion and jealousy does she awaken to a smoke filled room and an uneasy growing realization of where her pride has taken her. She has become the kind of woman she once held in contempt.
The storm that threatens the destruction of her farm is an omen of what is about to break over her life. Death enters her home in Fannie Robbin’s casket. Her husband’s desertion of her and his presumed drowning leaves her a young widow in black and so the besotted Mr. Boldwood returns with another generous offer. And all the while Gabriel watches over her.
The climatic scene comes on Christmas Eve. Mr. Boldwood has thrown a gala fit for a queen, confident this time Bathsheba will say yes. As she dances with Gabriel she pleads with him to tell her what to do. His answer is simply “do what is right”. And so she leaves the party only to run into her very much alive husband, Frank Troy. When she refuses to come with him, he grabs and threatens her, then as instantly as she became entangled with him she is set free; for Mr. Boldwood shoots Troy and he falls at her feet dead.
Three months pass and the images which fill the screen are ones of new creation; three white doves, apples on the tree, and spring time harvest. Gabriel finds Bathsheba in the church yard tending a grave. He comes to tell her he is leaving her now and going to America.
After his departure from the farm, Bathsheba wrestles with her pride and her heart. Knowing she cannot live without his presence she puts on the same outfit she wore the day they met and rides to find him.
At first she offers him wealth and position if he will but return; Gabriel, however, cannot be tempted or seduced. Only love can bring him back. Like a playful spunky lamb, Bathsheba bounces around Gabriel revealing her true heart: “You believed in me, you fought for me, you stood by me . . . wasn’t I your first sweetheart and weren’t you mine?”
He has been the shepherd of the little lamb that left Norcombe Hill in a buggy, following her into a dark world and saving her time and time again. At last she desires to come back to the fold . . . ”Ask me,Gabriel . . . ask me, ask me.”