04/27/15 9:00am
04/27/2015 9:00 AM |

Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Far from the Madding Crowd
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Opens May 1

Thomas Vinterberg’s sun-dappled, superficial adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s beloved novel certainly wins the award for briskness. Hardy’s 480-pages (in Penguin paperback) are condensed into two spry hours (John Schlesinger’s 1967 feature starring an in-their-prime Julie Christie and Terence Stamp ran to nearly three), though the quickened pace often comes at the expense of emotional coherence.

Carey Mulligan is quite good as Hardy’s heroine Bathsheba Everdene, a headstrong woman living in Victorian England who juggles the affections of three men after she is willed a family farm. Beleaguered shepherd Gabriel Oak (Mattias Schoenaerts, a sadly dull specimen of rugged manhood) is her soulmate, though misfortune has left him on a lower social station, and marriage (which our leading lady is semi-appalled by anyway) is especially out of the question after he goes to work as Everdene’s caretaker. That leaves wealthy milquetoast William Boldwood (Michael Sheen, having fun as usual), who mainly exists as a toyed-affections target, and Sergeant Troy (pretty-faced Tom Sturridge), a handsome young soldier who courts Everdene despite being in love with the hardship-prone Fanny Robin (Juno Temple, doing a corseted variation of her manic-pixie-dream-girl routine).

Each twist of this tragicomic love story feels rushed-through, as if we’re watching a season-long soap opera that’s been inelegantly condensed. As a result, the film lacks any impassioned spark, something Vinterberg tries to make up for with plenty of gauzy pillow shots of grassy English landscapes. More often though, he sticks disagreeably close to his actors, as if trying to recapture some of the visceral charge of his Dogme 95 family melodrama The Celebration (1998).

There are a few memorable images, like the one in which Oak’s flock of sheep is herded off a seaside cliff by a mad dog. But only one scene feels properly breathless—when Troy’s infatuated redcoat woos Everdene by swinging his sharp-edged sword around her body so as to prove his trustworthiness. The threat of blood being let makes the viewer’s blood pump. Beyond that, though, this is little more than handsomely mounted Cliffs Notes cinema.

04/08/15 11:02am
04/08/2015 11:02 AM |

Photo by John Haynes

John Golden Theatre
252 W. 45th Street

David Hare’s plays require a special depth and commitment from their actors in order to be anything more than left-wing agitprop, which is his predilection and specialty. In his best and most noted work, Plenty, the anti-heroine Susan Traherne tells off the complacent British bourgeoisie around her in an increasingly erratic, mentally unhinged way. The excitement of Plenty lies in the fact that Susan is right about most of what she’s saying but sometimes cruelly wrong about the way she says it. Plenty has a kind of variety and challenge that most of Hare’s other work for the theater lacks, and that would include Skylight, a modest play from the mid-90s that depends nearly entirely in this current production on star performances from Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy.

Mulligan’s Kyra is a classic Hare heroine—an outcast who sticks up for her leftist principles and social engagement at the expense of all love and personal pleasure. She is living in such a drab, ugly apartment that it seems as if it has been chosen for its ugliness, for its air of self-denial. In the first scene, a young boy named Edward (Matthew Beard) comes to visit her, and we learn that she once carried on an affair with his father Tom (Nighy), a posh restaurateur, right under the nose of his mother, Alice. When Alice found out about the affair, Kyra bolted, never to return or to explain herself. Edward tells Kyra that Alice has just died of cancer, and that Tom isn’t doing well.

But when Tom himself comes to call, only Nighy’s habitual twitching and wincing lets us know that this man is very unhappy underneath his privileged, arrogant manners. Nighy is giving a very mannered performance, as is his wont, but he effectively brings most of the sympathy to Tom in the second act, when he engages in a long debate with Kyra about her life and her choices. Mulligan has the perpetual look of a kicked puppy, and so she has a hard time getting as angry and violent as Kyra needs to be. When Kyra throws a whole drawer of utensils in Tom’s general direction, it feels like something the script has told Mulligan to do, not something that feels natural to her.

Mulligan’s moist, victimized manner throws the whole play to Nighy’s Tom when it should really be more of a contest between them. Kyra needs to be a bit more of a strong-hearted bitch, something closer to Susan Traherne in Plenty, for the meanings in the admittedly-thin material to be activated. As it is, it is perfectly enjoyable to watch Mulligan and Nighy do their stuff, but the play itself has no bite or sting in their hands. They seem resolutely separate on stage, when the writing is indicating that they are supposed to have powerful feelings for each other. And so a small play of ideas becomes merely a mismatched star vehicle only.