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This "Crowd" is hardly Hardy.

By Jeffrey Gantz

MAY 11, 1998:  With all the literary treasures still to be unearthed, you wouldn't expect to find Masterpiece Theatre falling victim to the Hollywood penchant for remakes. Yet last year the redoubtable PBS series took a second shot at Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, after giving us a fine version with Jenny Seagrove some 15 years ago. Now it's taking on John Schlesinger's superb 1967 film with a new adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd. If a Hardy novel was wanted, why not A Pair of Blue Eyes? Or Under the Greenwood Tree?

Not that Hardy's 1873 masterpiece, his first commercial success, can't embrace more than one interpretation. Set in his native Dorset, the story is a little schematic: plainspoken shepherd Gabriel Oak (an obvious Hardy alter ego, falls for the beautiful but capricious farmer (by inheritance) Bathsheba Everdene, but she's not taken with him, and besides, she's being courted by her wealthy neighbor, Farmer Boldwood, and then there's the dashing Sergeant Troy of Her Majesty's Dragoon Guards. But as with the novels of E.M. Forster (in particular Howards End), the real subject here is the English landscape, the rhythm of the seasons, the glory of sowing, reaping, lambing, shearing, harvest. The characters are just beautiful illuminations of the landscape text; if at first Bathsheba in her red jacket and Troy in his scarlet coat are the most striking, it's the patient and abiding Oak who eventually makes the deepest impression. By his actions he earns Bathsheba's love, and in Hardy's attempt at a happy ending she gives it to him.

Schlesinger's vision is a match for Hardy's; Nick Renton, who directs this new Granada/WGBH production, settles for green and pleasant. Schlesinger opens with a panoramic shot of the low chalky hills of Dorset, a sweep that confirms Hardy's emphasis as horizontal (the glory of Creation) and not vertical (no mention of the Creator); assisted by the magnificent cinematography of Nicolas Roeg, he goes on to show us the beauty of what Oak calls "honest dirt": there's mud everywhere, the working folk are covered with dirt and grime, sheep land in your lap, a pig pushes its snout into your face. Renton opens with a brief soft-focus montage of foliage, and his Dorset is as tame as Surrey. Where Roeg shoots through a magnifying glass (you can see the veins in every leaf), Renton's cinematographer, John Daly, gives us glossy and reassuring. Schlesinger gets a woodwind-drenched score from Richard Rodney Bennett that plumbs the depths of Hardy's passion; Renton's John Keane is innocuous by comparison, alternately peppy and wistful.

Schlesinger has a legendary cast: Alan Bates as Oak, Peter Finch as Boldwood, Terence Stamp as Troy, and Julie Christie as Bathsheba. Christie is somewhat miscast (she'd have been better suited to Tess of the d'Urbervilles or Jude's Sue Bridehead), but at least she's memorable; the three men are exemplary. Renton's quartet -- Nathaniel Parker as Oak, Nigel Terry as Boldwood, Jonathan Firth as Troy, and Paloma Baeza as Bathsheba -- fade away like the morning dew. The acting is competent but the characters come off as shallow, small-minded, self-absorbed. Everyone seems to be going through the motions.

Perhaps that's because everyone is patently aware of the 1967 film. Some of Renton's best moments echo Schlesinger's: the stampede of Oak's sheep, the sheep dipping, the outdoor shearing supper, the way he's dressed Oak and Troy and Fanny Robin. Some of his triumphs are original: the shear-sharpening scene, where Parker and Baeza catch fire; the grimmer view of the peasantry in Fanny's plight as she tries to find work; having Bathsheba sing "The Banks of Allan Water" at the shearing supper. The screenplay by Philomena McDonagh is dutifully literal (with a few odd aberrations); at three and a half hours, the production has the time to do justice to Hardy's concept.

Yet that's exactly what Renton doesn't achieve. On its own this is a respectable, even enjoyable adaptation, but next to Schlesinger it looks like Hardy Lite: just compare Schlesinger's over-the-top sword exercise (with Troy making like the Light Brigade) with the soporific run-through here. The BBC gave us an outstanding Jude the Obscure (with Robert Powell) and The Mayor of Casterbridge (with Alan Bates), but that was decades ago; this Far from the Madding Crowd stands with more recent ho-hum efforts like Michael Winterbottom's 1996 Jude and the Hallmark Return of the Native a few seasons back. Maybe Renton needed a larger budget. Or is it that these days we just don't have the vision to do the likes of Hardy?

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