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Far From the Madding Crowd: A Time Torn Story

20/05/2015 11:17 BST | Updated 18/05/2016 10:59 BST

In 2009, David Nicholls released the heartbreaking novel, One Day. His latest screenplay for Far From the madding Crowd (directed by Thomas Vinterberg) not only parallels the relationships in his previous work but brings to life Thomas Hardy's first major literary success.

Set in the atmospheric county of Dorset, Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a poor farm girl, encounters Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a farmer of modest income. After an awkward marriage proposal fails to impress her, the two lose contact. But after Gabriel loses all his livestock in a drastic turn of events, he looks for work elsewhere. It is only when Bathsheba inherits her uncle's farm that the two are reunited and, unbeknownst to Gabriel, he applies to work under this wealthy mistress' authority.

Bathsheba is central to the 1874 narrative. Over time, the beautiful, desirable, headstrong young woman attracts a trio of contrasting suitors; Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a handsome and reckless Sergeant, offers a passionate but unpredictable romance. William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), on the other hand, a prosperous but unexciting match, is the closest thing the village has to aristocracy.

The most enduring thread of the story, however, is undoubtedly the complex relationship shared between Bathsheba and Gabriel, a loyal, caring and calmly dignified man about 10 years her senior.

As this BBC Film unfolds, Hardy presciently describes our own time; in both the book and this 21st century performance, aided by Charlotte Bruus Christensen's cinematography, gender stereotypes become redundant as the two main characters identify with contradictory masculine and feminine impulses. Today, the steadfastness of traditional identities has become arbitrary in an increasingly post-modern world. This is what makes Vinterberg's masterpiece not only relevant but especially compelling to watch.

Hardy's heroine is multidimensional; not only does Hardy depict her as fiercely independent but he resists the cliched trap of casting this bold female as a fallen woman. Transgressing 19th century codes of female behaviour, Bathsheba takes on a masculine managerial role when she inherits the farm. However, flawed by her naivety and vanity, Hardy ensures she is believable.

In naming his central character 'Bathsheba', Hardy provocatively alludes to the beautiful, clever and unscrupulous Biblical figure who went by the same name. Despite being married to Uriah, Bathsheba was desired by King David whom she later became pregnant by. In order to lay claim to this ethereal beauty, David had Uriah murdered. Although Hardy's lead laments "It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs." Bathsheba, unlike her Biblical counterpart, is unencumbered by her sex.

Hardy expands and challenges the notion of the propertied woman in Far From the madding Crowd. Biblical Bathsheba is used to advance the agenda of a ruler and articulate his mastery. She contributes to the self-aggrandisement of the warrior king who reigned for 50 years from 1020 BCE. The formidable nature and economic independence of Far From the madding Crowd's Bathsheba provides her not only with a choice of whom she marries but also the option of whether to marry at all. Although she is a vehicle for the expression of three men's competing masculinities, the degree of autonomy and control she has in choosing her own destiny releases her from this encirclement of the male gaze.

Gabriel also resists categorisation. Although subordinate and economically dependent on Mistress Everdene, his expertise in agricultural work becomes indispensable to her. Both their professional and romantic relationships are underpinned by complicated dynamics; Oak expresses a traditional form of masculinity through his mastery of agriculture but respects Bathsheba's own ambition and authority. This is something Schoenaerts perfectly demonstrates onscreen.

In their mutually dependent pairing they expand the definitions of femininity and masculinity as well as its possibilities. Although aware of her egotism and vanity, Gabriel offers Bathsheba stability and constancy. Rather than suffering a crisis of masculinity, this time-torn man swears: "I shall do one thing in this life-one thing certain-this is, love you, and long of you, and keep wanting you till I die."

Gradually, their love becomes defined by mutual respect and support and when her marriage to the manipulative Troy comes to a miserable end, dependable Oak protects her and her business when she needs it most.

Bathsheba was ahead of her time and Gabriel is equally remarkable. As the plot concludes: "They spoke very little of their mutual feeling; pretty phrases and warm expressions being probably unnecessary between such tried friends." This story about the meaning of true love, loss and grief as well as the complexity of human relationships is timeless. In this inspiring new take, Hardy's duo continue to share one of the most fascinating relationships in literature and on the big screen.