Properly rediscovered: 1967’s Far from the Madding Crowd

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It’s heartening to see John Schlesinger’s 1967 film of Far From the Madding Crowd getting a well-deserved reappraisal, with some fairly glowing reviews for the restored version released in cinemas this Spring:

“One of the most entrancing and elemental landscape films ever shot in these isles, thanks in large part to Nicolas Roeg’s peerless cinematography and Schlesinger’s decision to cram the soundtrack with folk songs and country dances.”
Time Out

“What is striking, almost 50 years on from when it was made, is its extraordinary craftsmanship and its emotional intensity… This is not one of those handsomely mounted but stilted period dramas that is stifled by the fussiness of the costume and production design… Schlesinger’s film has a raw, elemental charge. It manages to portray rustic life without seeming quaint.”
The Independent

“The Hardy adaptation that really captured the scale, beauty and menace of the landscape, and all its colours and moods.”

“Christie carries the film with her own insouciant vulnerability. A classic.”
The Guardian

“Quality oozes from every pore.”
The Times

“Splendidly lusty fare, its feet deep in the mud of the English countryside, its head in the lens-flared glare of a dreamy tragi-romantic sky.”
The Observer

Not so long ago critics would dismiss the film as swinging-sixties style tacked onto Hardy’s Wessex – to the casual observer, perhaps not unfairly. The popular notion was that The Kinks had name-checked Terence Stamp and Julie Christie in ‘Waterloo Sunset’ in the year of release (something Ray Davies denied: “It was a fantasy about my sister going off with her boyfriend to a new world”).

Filmed in Dorset in the autumn and winter of 1966-1967, it’s not surprising Schlesinger’s film didn’t translate well to a Hollywood expecting a Dr Zhivago epic. After all, Schlesinger wanted to “dig out the dark spiritual side of Hardy… with verisimilitude”. As any Hardy aficionado will appreciate, this could be tantamount to setting your picnic in a crypt.

The restoration has been supervised by its cinematographer Nicholas Roeg (who in 1967 was yet to be the lauded director). At nearly three hours, it does demand a little of the viewer, but it’s a truly beautiful film, with a lush Oscar-nominated score from Richard Rodney Bennett, and the superlative casting of Alan Bates, Peter Finch, Julie Christie and Terence Stamp.

Perhaps its renewed appeal owes something to Schlesinger unearthing the landscape of a Victorian past in 1967, to clash with the hipster faces of Britain’s gentle, modish revolution. You could say Schlesinger’s film is now an uncontrived landmark, part of a timeline that tracks how we’ve looked to the landscape for authenticity: whether then, in the face of a ubiquitous ‘sixties scene’, or now, in the face of rampant capitalism.

And contradictions of style and substance – are they not the very heart of Bathsheba’s dilemma?

Released throughout the UK – see here for screenings.

Below: things to be grateful for in 2015 include the film now getting the poster it deserves (above), and not this excrescence from 1967:

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Port in a storm: essay from George Monbiot

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In the middle of the depressing medieval bear-pit that’s the winter festival of Consumermas, there’s a beautifully-written and beautifully-presented essay by George Monbiot, over at the BBC, here: http://www.bbc.com/earth/bespoke/story/20141203-back-to-nature/index.html

Douglas Coupland had a memorable sequence in Generation X where the lead character tries to capture a moment of meaning at Christmastime. He buys lots (and I mean lots) of candles and fills the room. Described like that, it’s just a horrible Hollywood gesture – but that’s why we need great writers, for however worn, jaded and tired the message, they bring fresh life.

I wasn’t always at ease with Mr Monbiot’s Feral, but I’d say everyone should read his BBC essay. It’s not ‘just’ the environment, it’s about being flesh and blood. Given the human race as it is, you might as well settle down in your armchair and read Hamlet to a goldfish, ad infinitum.

Forget Christmas, look bravely into the darkness, and search for the light.

 

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Firelit effigies: Thomas Imbach’s ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ (2013)

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In exploring the mindset of a figure clouded by legend, this Swiss-made retelling has a beautiful atmosphere. It uses shore, mountain and forest to depict Mary’s psychological terrain; puppet effigies twitch in firelight with folk-ritual precision, and Elizabeth is a constant presence, never made flesh – she is paint or puppet or a glimpse of doppelganger.

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Central to the story is Mary’s court musician and advisor Rizzio. With shades of Hamlet’s ghost, he lends another layer of tragedy to a treatment based on Stefan Zweig’s Maria Stuart with its key notes of suffering and fallibility.

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There are beautiful sequences of Scottish landscape which the director captured himself (though most of the filming was in Switzerland).

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As Mary narrates the letters she writes to Elizabeth, it’s a deathly, rough-hewn and unresponsive backdrop. At her moments of dislocation, the camera flees wraith-like over sea-washed shores or broken forest paths.

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Camille Rutherford captures Mary’s isolation, besieged as a powerful woman, long before she is imprisoned by the English queen, with a grace that captures both youth and regality. It’s a stark, European perspective which shuns Hollywood excess, with a layer of modernity that lies with ease.

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Many sequences foretell a life of imprisonment, with gunmetal-grey lattice and winter’s branches, failing winter light and a cooling sun.

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The years as a prisoner are beautifully distilled to a vision of purgatory: a crown woven with the fabric of her being, stained like Lady Macbeth.

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Mary Queen of Scots is a film that haunts and ebbs and flows. It’s not going to appeal to anyone seeking a history lesson, either gritty or lavish: it’s a theatrical, dramatic sequence of legendary events filtered through a poetic vision of inner life.

It’s released on Region 2 DVD now and also on Amazon Instant Video.

Rediscovered film gem: Tam Lin (1970)

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Roddy McDowall’s 1970 retelling of the Ballad of Tam Lin, like its counterpart The Wicker Man, had a troubled release and was destined to rot away in a vault. It was Martin Scorsese who rescued and restored a print for VHS in the 1990s.

A delayed release in the early 70s (as The Devil’s Widow) dated the mod look and it was dismissed by critics: a surface glance might file it away as a swinging vision of camp Hammer Horror.

For a start, its lead is Ava Gardner, in one of those difficult horror roles given to pre-1960s stars – navigated to perfection by Deborah Kerr in The Innocents but usually always ending in disaster never mind how hard the trying (an example might be Joan Fontaine’s 1966 effort The Witches with its promising village setting).

But it’s actually quite a witty, intelligent film with some really beautiful cinematography and solid performances. As McDowall’s first and only film as director, it’s brimming with ideas and techniques, some of which aren’t exactly successful (cue a particularly awkward and entertaining stop-frame segment), but it all adds up to a fascinating spectacle to enjoy on many levels.

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McDowall appears to have taken the original material seriously: the locations and landscapes are authentic, filmed around Selkirk in Scotland – specifically Ettrick Forest and Tranquair House. The soundtrack features songs by electric-folk icons Pentangle, including a superb version of Tam Lin, and a couple of beat arrangements apparently supervised by Stanley Myers (who orchestrates girl-with-the-sun-in-her-hair embellishments elsewhere).

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What the world looks like through the Devil’s Widow’s sunglasses.

That’s not to say Tam Lin isn’t awash with late 60s stylistic excess, but these exaggerated visions of modern are eery in themselves, and contribute to the success. It’s not nostalgia any more, but a glimpse into the axis-tilt of a parallel universe, an acid-filter processing metaphors for experimentation and otherness. McDowall apparently called Tam Lin a swansong for the sixties.

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An early role for Withnail and I’s creator Bruce Robinson (right) as Ava Gardner’s jilted (and typically well-spoken) elf.

The cast includes many familiar stalwarts of British Cinema (in later years, if not at the time). We’ve got Sinead Cusack, her father Cyril, Magpie‘s Jenny Hanley (OK, not exactly a cinema stalwart), Fabia Drake and Joanna Lumley…

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Joanna Lumley setting a blueprint for a career. When the Devil’s Widow gets a little irritated with her coven, Lumley announces, deadpan, “Life is an illusion therefore nothing is permanent. I think I shall go to Sweden”.

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The Fairy Queen’s cavalcade weaving through the Scottish borders to her castle: at Halloween one of her elves/imprisoned mortals is given as a tithe to hell…

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The first indication that Tam Lin is going to be quite a trip: Jenny Hanley and Ian McShane playing frisbee. In slow motion.

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If this vision had evolved on a different path to the 21st century, John Lewis would advertise similar glockenspiel and cocktail frenzies instead of barbecues. Hang on a minute, they do, don’t they?

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Stephanie Beacham (as Janet, the vicar’s daughter in brown and heroine of the original ballad) delivers a puppy to a member of Ava Gardner’s coven: “She’s not having him! She’s doped or something!”

There are, however, many qualities that make Tam Lin a classic of folk horror, modernity giving way to the ancient in the best traditions of its golden age.

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The hills of time…

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The village, with ‘local’ people…

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The place of simple, certain things.

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A beautiful transitional still.

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Fabia Drake as a wisewoman – her measured, taciturn look would later grace ‘A Jewel in the Crown’ and ‘A Room with a View’.

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Ian McShane’s Tam Linn (or Tom Linn for the 60s) is, like any self-respecting 60s hipster, a photographer.

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Under the surface…

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Janet finds her double-headed rose, a key feature of the folk tale, in a grocer’s barrow.

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One of the many misted or sunlit views of bridges on the borders.

And then the magic begins…

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Tam Lin
has been released as a Region 1 DVD in a restored print.