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TV Review

'Madding Crowd' Retains Feel of Novel

May 09, 1998|DON HECKMAN

The transformation of the leisurely, language-rich experience of reading a classic novel into a present-tense television or film visualization is never an easy task. And in the case of Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd"--a masterpiece by any definition, with its astonishing power to bring alive the sights and sounds, the layered emotions and the inherent sense of permanence in the 19th century Dorset countryside--it is a particularly thorny enterprise.

But the "Masterpiece Theatre" four-hour adaptation, aired in two installments, is a striking testimony to television's power to illuminate even the most complex novels, when it is used with consummate visual skill and a firm dedication to the original source.

Hardy's elegiac view of English country life, his belief that the bond between farmers and the land, between humanity and nature, had the capacity to heal all wounds, was an essential element of his thinking, one that also emerged in his other "Wessex" novels (among them "The Return of the Native").

In this tale, however, the undercurrent of stress runs deep. Bathsheba Everdene is a lovely, unconventional young woman who inherits a large farm and draws the affections of three men. Stolid, dependable Gabriel Oak (Nathaniel Parker) loves Bathsheba almost from the first moment he sees her. Mr. Boldwood (Nigel Terry)--older, seemingly well-centered but with an unpredictable tinge of obsessiveness--desperately wants to marry her. But it is Frank Troy (Jonathan Firth), a handsome, self-centered soldier who initially wins her attention.

The story unfolds with the slow, interlocking inevitability of Greek drama. Bathsheba, in a far-ranging, textured performance by newcomer Paloma Baeza, emerges as a kind of new woman of the 19th century, insisting upon running her farm herself, determined to control her emotional life yet vulnerable to Troy's aggressive blandishments. And the three men, with their dramatically disparate qualities, are like the differing aspects of one man, engaging her in varying seasons of maleness: Oak's dependable but passive love; Boldwood's obsessive desire to own; Troy's vanity-driven need to conquer.

The complex interaction among these three characters takes place in a compellingly atmospheric country setting. Philomena McDonagh's script, Nick Renton's direction and Hilary Bevan Jones' production allow fringe characters the time--both visually and aurally--to add rich dialogue textures.

By doing so, the production retains a considerably more powerful connection with the subtleties of the original novel than the more familiar 1967 film version (with Julie Christie). And if the rapid sounds of English country dialect register slowly on American ears, they nonetheless provide the perfect framework for a masterful example of how to bring a literary classic to the television screen.

*

* "Far From the Madding Crowd" premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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