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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Autumn fires

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Hardy's Return of the Native, Agnes Miller Parker

One of Agnes Miller Parker’s wood engravings for a 1930s edition of The Return of the Native. And then, from the same decade, a short film by Herman G. Weinberg called Autumn Fire.

There’s a man in the city, a woman in the country – both gazing mournfully at their landscape: autumn leaves, splashes of gleaming rainwater, city skylines, billowing clouds, and even a squirrel. If time is short, skip to eight minutes in for the general atmosphere. Whoever posted this on YouTube has used Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun for the soundtrack, which is perfect.

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Faint lights at sunset… or on the horizon

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Random Harvest, James Hilton

From 1941, James Hilton’s novel Random Harvest… a really excellent cover with just the credit ‘Reeves’ in the corner. It’s the book of the film which I mentioned here. It was a best-seller in the forties (second on the New York Times list of bestsellers for the year). James Hilton is another of those authors unfairly lost in time because of a mis-informed assumption that the work is simply reinforcing bland, reactionary values. He’s actually analysing class and small-mindedness as well as anyone. For example:

“Have you ever been going somewhere with a crowd and you’re certain it’s the wrong road and you tell them, but they won’t listen, so you just have to plod along in what you know is the wrong direction till somebody more important gets the same idea?”

Hilton worked in Hollywood from the 1930s and was involved with some of the most well-loved films of the era such as Goodbye Mr Chips and Lost Horizon. I saw the latter at my grandma’s house as a small child, fascinated as Ronald Colman rescued the love of his life from a magical Himalayan valley. I remember my grandma telling me to wait and see what happened. It was worth it, as she knew, because the rescued girl shrivelled into a 200-year-old crone the moment she stepped from the magic valley, which had us in fits.

Hilton also created the story and the film Mrs Miniver from Jan Struther’s diaries, which along with Went the Day Well is a classic wartime morale-booster.

Road Through the Woods, Pamela Frankau

Road Through the Woods (1960) was bought for the cover initially (not that I didn’t check it was worth reading) but I soon discovered another once well-known and regarded author in Pamela Frankau. J B Priestley wrote that her work ‘just gets better and better… with every word she writes her pen is sharper’. Frankau was also part of Rebecca West’s circle. I want to know why she disappeared, so she’s a name I look out for when browsing the unloved and forgotten in second-hand bookshops.

The Distant Horns of Summer, H E Bates

And finally H E Bates, from 1967. His time will come again without doubt. Just now, those horns of summer seem way behind us. Britain has just had the most beautiful summer in years, so autumn is a little more melancholy this year. Pan has gone away for now…

Tales of Mystery and Imagination

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Goldfrapp - Tales of Us lyric excerpts

I wish I had time to do justice in words to the magnificence of Goldfrapp’s new album Tales of Us, a collection of film-noir-ish songs that the words ‘beautiful’ and ‘mesmerising’ were made for. I’ve snatched a few lyrics above and here’s the trailer of the short films by Lisa Gunning that are attached to the project. The whole concept is beautifully realised – the songs are as consistent and as full with melodic hooks and strings as anything by a great soundtrack master of the 60s and 70s, yet utterly contemporary, and magnified by the book and cinema references which inspire each track.

“We’ve always had these two worlds that exist alongside each other,” Alison Goldfrapp has said. “The sort of more pastoral, orchestral sound and then this much harder, synthetic sound. I love both, but I’d say I think this more acoustic, simple sound is where my heart is at. All the artists that I really love and listen to all the time and always go back to are of that ilk. That’s what I feel really passionate about… I love this, and I feel somehow that I can explore this world more. And I feel very comfortable with that.”

Goldfrapp released their debut Felt Mountain in 2001 and their influence, visually and musically, filtered through the years. It’s no surprise that The Lowry in Manchester is running their first ‘performer as curator’ exhibition from October featuring works chosen by Alison Goldfrapp. The poster features the beautiful artwork from 2000’s Lovely Head single, when Goldfrapp were using the ‘wild’ imagery that has become so ubiquitous over the last decade.

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Tales of Us is also released as gatefold vinyl which includes a CD version.

Le Chien (1962)

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Today Whistles in the Wind is pleased to offer a ‘guest editor’ spot. I’m handing over now. Here she is…

Guest editor

Although I’m tempted to Instagram the half loaf of multigrain bread I ‘lifted’ off the breadboard yesterday, and thus brag of my sophisticated lifestyle options, I’ve chosen instead to share a clip from one of my favourite films in the history of French cinema: Le Chien (1962), directed by François Chalais, and starring European superstars Rex, Elke Sommer and Alain Delon.

We join our hero after a long tussle with affairs of the heart. In this stunning denouement he has left Paris behind and sped off in his voiture, racing through the French countryside – will it be too late?

At this moment tails pause mid-wag, heads tilt and time is suspended as we wait for the only right and true outcome. Makes the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s look like some tawdry afternoon made-for-TV schmaltzfest – and that had cats…