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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Off to Ambrosia with Billy Liar

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Tom Courtenay as Billy Liar (1963)

Is Billy Liar really 50 years old? It’s one of the key sixties films catching Britain at a time of transition, mirrored by Billy’s dreams of escape from small town doldrums to something more ‘swinging’. In the early 1990s there was a wonderful BBC weekly retrospective of the era, with all the key films beautifully introduced and the icons interviewed.

Julie Christie and Tom Courtenay

Julie Christie and Tom Courtenay, 1964

Back then you could still wander London and feel the spirit/myth of the locations (there was a kind of indie ’90s is 60s upside down’ thing at the time). The ephemera had lived on in 1980s youth with The Smiths and their legendary sleeve artwork and videos; I remember my oldest brother bringing home the records which introduced Terence Stamp, Rita Tushingham, Pat Phoenix, Yootha Joyce, Alain Delon, Viv Nicolson, The Family Way – a long line of the spirits of an age.

The Smiths Covers

I was wondering to someone about the unselfconscious types who in my childhood bicycled everywhere in wing-framed glasses and tweed overcoats with faces ‘washed bright with carbolic soap’ (a phrase I got from my grandma). Where did they go? It seemed every second of their lives was spent doing quiet practical things. They didn’t need excitement. I thought it was punk that changed things. I was corrected – of course it was the sixties (I was too young to remember: a moment to cherish).

And now in the 21st century it seems people want these culturally marginalised types back, or at least to know they are there in the background, unfazed by the digital age. We even have lots of cake-making, village fete TV. The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ has backfired and in Brand Britain for tourists today it has no hint of irony, just as John Lydon now advertises butter.

This clip from Billy Liar is pure perfection in articulating a yearning for ‘something more’. It’s about the stuff that fuels the best bands, and a particular type of indie pop where edited if not imaginary worlds are held fleetingly in bubbles. Here too is Julie Christie in one of her earliest roles, and probably quite revolutionary in not being squashed into a perfectly made-up fifties ideal. The Yorkshire (Bradford) setting is familiar from my own family and I defy anyone not to want to be on that 12.05 train in 1963.

Elsewhere on WordPress I found this essay The Romance of Grime which celebrates and pinpoints the spirit of the British kitchen sink drama and is well worth a read.