The 4K digital restoration of John Schlesinger’s 1967 version of Thomas Hardy’s most popular novel has been in selected UK cinemas over the last few weeks leading up to the release of the new Thomas Vinterberg version on May 1st. I managed to catch the restoration at the wonderful Hebden Bridge Picture House. I remembered only a couple of scenes from a first viewing a long time ago and I enjoyed every minute of the restoration (there are 168 minutes in all but it felt like 90 – I know many think the opposite).
This film provides another of those examples of storytelling that divide some critics from some audiences. I can’t understand some of the negative comments made on the film’s initial release. For me there are five reasons why the film works so well. First is Hardy’s story. OK, it doesn’t have the depth of Tess or Jude the Obscure but there are enough eventful sequences threaded through the everyday depiction of life for rural communities in 1860s ‘Wessex’ to drive the narrative towards its expected conclusion. If you don’t know the story, Julie Christie is Bathsheba Everdene the young woman who inherits her uncle’s extensive farm and who is wooed in turn by shepherd Gabriel Oak, gentleman farmer Boldwood and dashing Sergeant Troy (the cad!). Second is the representation of the English landscapes of Dorset and Wiltshire and the set pieces of an outdoor communal meal, the wedding night drinking and the travelling circus among others. Allied to this is the cinematography by Nicolas Roeg and the equally fine production and costume design, the film and sound editing and Richard Rodney Bennett’s score. Third is the starpower of the four leads. In 1967 Julie Christie was at the height of her fame after Darling (1965) for which she had won an Oscar and Doctor Zhivago (1965) – although she had also asserted her interest in less mainstream work such as Fahrenheit 451 (1966) for François Truffaut (with Nic Roeg on camera). Peter Finch as Boldwood had been a stalwart of British Cinema as a leading man from the early 1950s, although his two biggest roles were arguably in the 1970s. Terence Stamp as Sergeant Troy and Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak represented two of the strongest acting talents and star performers to emerge in the 1960s. It’s salutary to remember the diversity and high quality of UK film actors in this period. I’m expecting Vinterberg’s new film to be very different and to use its performers differently. Faced with the quartet here, Carey Mulligan and co. would have difficulty radiating the same starpower.
The fourth strength of the film is its supporting cast, who inhabit their period dress, wigs and facial hair with real relish. I recognised several character actors but I would have believed anyone who told me these were non-professionals acting as themselves. It’s partly this supporting cast that helps steer the film away from the BBC ‘costume drama’ and the later designation of ‘heritage film’. In many ways the film looks like an American Western set down in Dorset, giving off the same sense of earthy vitality. Finally, what brings all these elements together is the trio of John Schlesinger, Joseph Janni and Frederic Raphael. This trio of director, producer and writer had worked together on Darling and for Janni and Schlesinger it was their fourth collaboration. I think that everything works in the film and it feels like a complete and polished production. The best compliment I can pay it is to say that it is almost as good as Polanski’s stunning Tess made 12 years later. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is the better novel and Polanski is a Champions League director compared to Schlesinger as a solid Premiership director, but the two films have things in common including a sense of landscape (even if Tess cheats by using Brittany).
I’m not sure what to make of the 4K restoration. Sitting close to the screen, what seemed like excessive grain was evident in the opening shot. Some scenes did seem very dark and I wasn’t sure if this was Roeg’s intention or whether it was a feature of the attempt to create true blacks in the digital print. I’m no expert on such things. On the cinematography generally I was surprised by the combination of what I would term a classical use of close-ups in the ‘Scope frame and several more innovatory devices. It would take two or three more viewings to fully appreciate Roeg’s work in terms of colours, framings and camera movements. The opening shots of the downs and the later sequence in which Sergeant Troy ‘ravishes’ Bathsheba with his sabre are stunning.
I’m looking forward to the new version of the story and especially Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba. Christie was the 1960s star of my teenage years and I realise that I was somewhat gushing about Mulligan’s role as the 1960s schoolgirl in An Education. I’ve found Ms Mulligan’s choice of roles since then to be a mix of the very interesting (Never Let Me Go and Shame) and those which I’ve no real wish to see (Wall Street and The Great Gatsby). She is clearly an intelligent actor and with Vinterberg she should be able to create something wonderful. Julie Christie seems at times too girlish and flighty to be Hardy’s Bathsheba – but she is still the star of the show. She dominates her scenes by the way she moves and uses her costumes. I never tire of watching her. I suspect that Carey Mulligan has the acting chops but that they will be deployed rather differently.
If I was sceptical of the idea of an Indian-set retelling of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, then Trishna removed them successfully. Michael Winterbottom’s third adaptation of a Hardy novel (following The Claim – based on The Mayor of Casterbridge – and Jude) this updates Tess to modern Rajasthan, a province still functioning as a rural community enough alike to nineteenth century Dorset (or Wessex) to make the parallels less of a gimmick and more living and breathing motivations for the characters. It is a place where the kind of passivity that Tess shows in the face of all decisions would be credible – for a Western audience – in a young girl from a poor family. What more local audiences will make of this – and in particular after some of the controversy that Slumdog Millionaire generated – I’d really like to hear.
Being able to see this pretty much back to back with Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, shows how two of the main contenders for current leading British filmmaker approach their work with such an eye for the essences of the story and a desire to make it truly modern. Arnold’s film catches you with how it blends both the language of the novel with modern expressions – without the two jarring and so emphasising how little the essences of people and their passions change. It is embedded in the storytelling through the dialogue – a better claim for contemporaneity than any of the surface glosses (wet shirts, tousled hair) added in order to ‘sex up’ and so update certain Austen or Bronte adaptations. Quite differently, Winterbottom has engaged with aspects of Indian culture to create a world where the girl from the village, Trishna, can believably wish to aspire to be part of a glamour that would usually be completely out of her reach – the world of the Westernised Jay whose father owns the luxury hotels to pander to tourists’ colonial nostalgia and who dabbles in the fringes of Bollywood, his money attractive to ambitious filmmakers and musicians. There’s a very modern dilemma for Trishna. Winterbottom (responsible for the screenplay as well as the direction) allows the narrative to generate other possibilities that the lead character could follow in twenty-first century Mumbai. How she chooses to resolve her situation would be huge spoiler – so I won’t spoil it.
In the Q&A following the screening, Winterbottom and Pinto discussed working with a treatment and exploring improvisations extensively (the dialogue is very loose and naturalistic in line with this) and how many of the characters are non-professional locals in the area around Ossian (a city which is off the regular tourist track – as Jay’s group comments – but which looked stunning in Marcel Zyskind’s cinematography) playing a version of themselves. Pinto spent a long time with the real jeep driver’s family who play her family in the film – and that is tangible in the warm on-screen relationships making their relationship much more central than in the novel. Winterbottom had long eyed that area as ideal for an adaptation of Tess – since he went there for Code 46 (another even more improvisational narrative, with some of the same issues of power and disenfranchisement as we find here).
The music drives the story. From the homage sequences to Bollywood films – where a dance rehearsal in the story breaks out of its frame within a frame to become a brief performance sequence direct to camera – to the Indian movies playing on the television. Better minds than mine will be able to furnish the specific references but it’s a melodrama in the true sense in the way it subsumes the music into the drama. The girls (‘milkmaids’) dance with youthful joy and abandon to the TV sequence, knowing all the moves – by turns sexy, provocative but with a carelessness that is innocent of their seductiveness. (This is at the heart of Tess too). The process of working with Amit Trivedi during the course of the film – so that the original songs were developed during shooting enabling them to be embedded into the story (commenting back on the action as is familiar in this style of movie). The original theme is a lyrical, elegiac melody – imbued with a tone more nineteenth than twenty-first century. Written by Shigeru Umebayashi (who was responsible for just such another affecting score on A Single Man) it returns periodically to overlay the romance.
Winterbottom commented that if Pinto and Ahmed had not agreed to do the film, then it simply would not have been made. This is a very typical publicity puff we’re all used to hearing on the DVD extras, except this time it was more convincing. These two actors are what British stars are made of – embodying an charisma outside their character and a conviction within it. Ahmed, in particular, handled a character combining both Alec and Angel well to maintain engagement with a potentially unsympathetic role. It made me want to see them in a role where their ethnic origin, or their ability to represent those roles, was removed. (Although I see Ahmed has subsequently worked with Mira Nair on an American-set 9/11 related narrative – her handling of such a narrative would be a must-see following films such as The Namesake).
Music has been such as integral part of Winterbottom’s film conceptions – there are the obvious links via Nine Songs and 24 hour Party People; there are the collaborations with Michael Nyman in Wonderland and The Claim; a clip played from Jude reminded me of that haunting folk melodies that convey the melancholy and impending tragedy in that story. In an accompanying screen talk, Winterbottom outlined how that process differs from film to film (not surprising given the wide diversity of material he engages with) and it reminded me what a versatile role music plays in his films.