Beyond the ripping bodice

Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) states her position early in the latest big-screen adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd.

When faced with a sudden marriage proposal from the quiet shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), she boldly declares, “I don’t want a husband.” Bathsheba has a refreshing independence and bright intellect that Gabriel is immediately attracted to. He will become her most loyal friend and constant suitor. But for now, she will not marry him and explains, “If I ever were to marry I’d want somebody to tame me, and you’d never be able to do it.” Just what she means by this will become clearer throughout the course of the film.

Carey Mulligan's Bathsheba Everdene knows what she wants and eventually gets it.
Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba Everdene knows what she wants and eventually gets it.

Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s beautifully seductive adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel is an example of the literature to film genre at its best. These adaptations, or period dramas, seem to arrive on our screens in cycles. In recent years we’ve seen provocative new versions of Jane Eyre (2011, Cary Fukunaga), Wuthering Heights (2011, Andrea Arnold) and Anna Karenina (2012, Joe Wright) in close succession. Vinterberg’s Hardy arrives alongside the first adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 realist masterpiece, Madame Bovary, to be directed by a woman, the French-American filmmaker, Sophie Barthes. It stars Australian actress Mia Wasikowska as the titular, Emma Bovary.

Mia Wasikowska as restless Emma Bovary.
Mia Wasikowska as restless Emma Bovary.

Both Bathsheba and Emma emerge from a time when women had little control over the direction of their lives. But they are very different women, negotiating their worlds in very different ways.

Bathsheba’s a rare bird in Victorian England. Already strong-willed, she gains financial support for her independence when she inherits her uncle’s farm which allows her the freedom to live as she chooses, without provision from a man. Emma, on the other hand feels caged. Marrying Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), an unambitious provincial doctor, she wonders if “her future is just a dark corridor with a bolted door at the end.” The domestic sphere is conceived first as a prison, and finally a tomb – Emma seeks liberation from its tedium in the intoxicating bliss of sexual affairs, fashion and redecorating.

Adaptations of 19th-century novels remain fertile ground for filmmakers, especially those with women at their centre. And audiences continue to flock because their pleasures are immense: lavish costuming and props; the unembarrassed expression of emotion; fascinating women and seductive men; and a sly comfort for viewers in the knowledge of how far we have come.

Women’s consumption patterns have been well documented over time – women’s magazines, soap operas, romance novels and rom-coms, are all designated as cultural products with a particularly feminine focus, and often denigrated because of this. Similarly, period dramas are often labelled “chick flicks” despite attracting a wide audience because of their literary pedigree and the status of the directors taking the helm.

But the marketing of these films is squarely at women – posters call them “love stories”, blurbs heighten their romantic elements over social concerns, and trailers are stacked with heaving bosoms and lusty stares. Love and romance are conflated, when in reality, these films often present the two concepts as highly antithetical – love as constant and selfless; romance as arousing but short-lived. To engage with these films simply as pretty trifles or portals of escapism, does them a profound disservice. They’re not respectable literary texts reimagined as ‘bodice rippers.’ There’s something more at work here.

Bathsheba’s early speech establishes a dynamic that complicates the idea of romance that is later played out in her relationship with three very different men. In addition to Gabriel, Bathsheba must contend with the attention of her wealthy neighbour, the gentleman farmer, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and then the pretty rogue, Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge). The gold buttons on Troy’s red uniform reduce Bathsheba to the “silly” girl she never wanted to be. He cuts a dashing figure and plays to her vanity to reel her in, Bathsheba discovering that she is not immune to romance after all. Boldwood, less self-assured but much richer, suffers from an excess of love that completely unhinges him; despite respecting him, Bathsheba can never return his feelings, and any union between them would be little more than a business transaction.

Gabriel Oak - The Loyal Friend
William Boldwood - The Eligible Bachelor
Frank Troy - The Reckless Lover

But despite these inducements, Far from the Madding Crowd is best categorised as an “anti-romance” narrative, a text that warns against the excesses of romance. As they are in Madame Bovary, romantic tendencies in Far from the Madding Crowd are distractions from genuine connections and individual accomplishments; romantic love a problem to be solved, and often an insurmountable hurdle leading to death.

Gabriel’s love is something else, distinguished by its humility, constancy and stability. He is Bathsheba’s “first sweetheart” and by the end of Far from the Madding Crowd he’s the last man standing. While Troy and Boldwood offer Bathsheba all the trappings of romance – flattery, poetry, dancing, jewelry – Gabriel offers her the closest thing to a genuine relationship, one based on mutual respect and shared interests. This may sound dull or dispassionate on paper, but casting works very much against this reading, with the very masculine, very sexy Schoenaerts positioned as the most warm and physically attractive of the three men (at least for this viewer), so that it’s never possible to see him as second best or uninspiring. Gabriel is also appealing because he talks to Bathsheba frankly, in a way the other men, so bound up in complimenting her for their own gain, simply can’t. He is always on Bathsheba’s side and only wants what is best for her – he believes in her; he sees her flaws and loves her all the same. And importantly Gabriel never behaves as if diminished in any way by the woman she is. Even though Bathsheba is his boss, they are equals. Gabriel “tames” her simply by giving her permission to be herself.

Frank Troy brings excitement to Bathsheba's life ...
Frank Troy brings fleeting excitement to Bathsheba’s life …
But Gabriel's love is selfless and won't let her down.
But Gabriel’s love is selfless and won’t let her down.

Vinterberg’s film is a triumph because from the very start we are on Bathsheba’s side. In Barthes’ vision of Madame Bovary, empathy is less prolific. Flaubert is partly to blame – he created a great literary anti-heroine. Emma behaves ‘badly’ and makes poor choices that implicate her in her own demise. But Emma is attractive to us because she’s a deeply complex character – depressed, capricious, and unable to be happy. Despite understanding the social limitations of Emma’s world, Barthes’ directorial choices don’t give sufficient weight to Emma’s enchantment with the sentimental romance novels she’s imbibed since she was a girl. It’s a desire to experience – every minute of every single day – the heightened emotional states she encounters in these pages that fuel her dissatisfaction even more than social mores. As Flaubert writes when Emma is embroiled in her own affair, she is completely occupied by the charm of the seduction and imagines she has become one of the adulterous women in her novels, “fulfilling the long daydream of her youth, by seeing herself as this type of amorous woman she had so envied.” Often described as a flighty character, Emma Bovary’s head, when it is out of her books, is high above ground, floating in the stars.

Emma desires a life of constant heightened romantic moments that cannot be sustained.
Emma desires a life of constant heightened romantic moments that cannot be sustained.

It is true that Emma is a thoroughly modern heroine – living for the now, chasing transitory pleasures in her desire to feel alive, with little concern for tomorrow. But chasing daily passion doesn’t open the world to Emma. The walls close in. There’s nothing romantic about her destruction – romanticism is her greatest enemy, and she is tormented by her endless cravings. Ultimately, Emma falls not because she’s compelled by an intense, tragic love for the Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green) or Léon (Ezra Miller), or the crippling debts she owes to Monsieur Lheureux (Rhys Ifans), but because she keeps running towards anything that evades her greatest fear, of a life spent “standing inert.”

Emma running towards romance with one of her lovers, Leon (Ezra Miller).
Emma running towards romance with one of her lovers, Leon (Ezra Miller).

There is a key moment in Flaubert’s novel where Emma decides, momentarily, that she needs “to be able to lean on something more solid than love.” She sees she has incorrectly conflated her reckless romantic escapades with love and that they are causing her to stumble. Emma never finds that solid thing to lean on. But Bathsheba, who sees the error of her romantic flights of fancy, does, in the arms of a man who has his feet planted firmly on the ground.

Gabriel Oak

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