May 13, 2016

Alternative to What: "Far from the Madding Crowd" (2015)

Scene from Far from the Madding Crowd
Welcome to Alternative to What: a weekly column that tries to find a great alternative to driving to the multiplexes. Based on releases of that week, the selections will either be thematically related or feature recurring cast and crew. The goal is to help you better understand the diversity of cinema and hopefully find you some favorites while saving a few bucks. At worse, this column will save you money. Expect each installment to come out on Fridays, unless specified. 

Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)
- Alternative To -
Love & Friendship (2016)

What exactly can be made about period pieces nowadays? With most of the iconic stories now adapted to death, there's a certain need to go further and explore a wider variety of talent. It's difficult to know what a good period piece, specifically a costume drama, can be when one is merely used to BBC-level shows that paint the upper class as quaint and full of insular problems. It may be part of this weekend's new release Love & Friendship, which is inspired by a Jane Austen novella. If one needs to have any faith that there's more period pieces of the past few years worth exploring, one doesn't have to go too far. In fact, last year was a treasure trove of good films. One of the best was Far from the Madding Crowd, which received a somewhat tepid and underwhelming response.
Like most stories, the drama is mostly about the complicated British class system, specifically through the guise of Carey Mulligan. She wishes to be the master of the house as well as someone who works among her staff. Speaking as this was 19th century, it was wild and out of character in a lot of respects. While this is a main drive of the film, there are additional plots that involve three suitors who try to get her attention. To varying degrees, they succeed. However, the struggle between independence and the conventional home life of a woman turns into the film's final conflict, and one that is covered in such compelling detail thanks to the direction that mixes naturalism with elegance in striking ways.
While it would be easy to compare these two films solely on plot, there's another thing that inevitably will overwhelm your attention. The cinematography is gorgeous and the hillsides end up becoming a mesmerizing sight. While everyone is finely dressed, Mulligan's wardrobe is a thing of beauty, and one of which is a crime that it didn't receive an ounce of Oscars attention. If nothing else, this is a wonderful film to look at, and those who get their kicks from costume dramas will immediately fall in love with what they see. Thankfully, the accompanying story and acting is pretty good. Still, the film's lasting impact will be on the eye, and how it manages to creates images so breathtaking that you only wished that period pieces were allowed to have budgets and talents like this nowadays.

Whatever the case may be, Far from the Madding Crowd is just a really good adaptation of 19th century literature and a curious depiction of feminism of the time. While I am unsure how different it is from the Thomas Hardy book of which it's based, I can say that it definitely captures elegance and romance in a way that is complimented by the screen. One immediately becomes enraptured in the beauty in ways that few films outside of Joe Wright are allowed to be. Mulligan continues to be one of the strange overlooked actresses working as she gives a nuanced performance opposite the equally charming Matthias Schoenaerts. The cast is strong, but the chemistry is stronger - and the allure of the period is nonetheless one of the best parts about it.
I don't know how Love & Friendship will compare to Jane Austen adaptations. It would be lazy to have recommended another adaptation of her work this week. It's why I have decided instead to address period pieces, which are pretty good when they'e allowed to be ambitious and use modern technology to the best of their advantage. Still, there's some magic to when cinema does things correctly, and Far from the Madding Crowd did so. Unfortunately, it didn't quite get as big of a reaction as its quality would suggest. However, it's still a great film and one that is likely to be discussed for years to come.

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