Director Thomas Vinterberg on bringing Thomas Hardy bang up to date for the big screen, and why being a woman is complicated nowadays
Far From the Madding Crowd might seem like a departure for experimental ex-Dogme practitioner Thomas Vinterberg, but you don’t have to look too deeply beneath the surface of his Thomas Hardy adaptation to find a modern edge.
The plot sees independent woman Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) struggling to decide which of her three suitors (farmer, soldier, older sadsack) to settle down with – if any. If Everdene was around today, she’d probably be swiping left and right on Tinder because she’s so focused on her media career. We spoke to Vinterberg about the author’s sexism, Everdene’s feminism and about how to create a costume drama for the Instagram generation…
There’s a wonderful line in the film, where Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) talks about the frustration of women having to express themselves using words created by men to express their own feelings. How do you approach writing female characters? I know you didn’t write this one, but in general…
Thomas Vinterberg: In my next film, The Commune, there’s a very strong female character, and I approach it like I approach everything in writing, with humbleness and a sense of exploration. How must it be to be inside a woman’s body? That is my main gasoline for everything I do.
Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene was a very modern character. So I thought either he was very visionary, or life hasn’t changed much for women, and that was very interesting. Also, the films I’d done before had been very full of testosterone, very male-driven. I thought it was about time I explored the other sex. Professionally. (laughs)
Thomas Hardy is in an interesting character. In some critical circles, he’s considered sexist…
Thomas Vinterberg: Is he? I didn’t know.
I think mainly because his female characters suffer so much because of their decisions – they’re usually tragic characters, victims. But then other circles suggest that he’s simply reflecting what was happening at the time. How much research did you do into his work?
Thomas Vinterberg: I did not do any. I decided to take a naive approach to this. I thought that was the point of asking a Dane (to do the film), I didn’t have the national heritage as a weight on my shoulders. I thought I could contribute honesty by approaching it in an uninfluenced way. I obviously read the book several times, but I didn’t do any analysis. Making a film has to come from the heart, possibly the genitals, but not so much from your head.
Bathsheba is actually a strong female character. What do you think of the state of female characters in cinema currently?
Thomas Vinterberg: My feeling is strong female characters are quite fashionable at the moment. But my feeling is it doesn’t change anything. Being a woman is complicated nowadays. It’s a combination of having to be strong and independent and careerist, but still being able to devote to a man. It’s very complicated, and I feel sorry for them.
In Denmark we have a lot of strong women – tall, beautiful, blonde, strong. But I find them struggling with being able to devote. It’s a virtue that I miss. This character, Bathsheba, learns that – this is her journey. Without, hopefully, letting go of her independence. Hopefully, they meld together at the end – I’ll leave it to the audience to judge if that’s a surrender as a woman, or making a richer and still independent life.
“Strong female characters are quite fashionable at the moment. But my feeling is it doesn’t change anything. Being a woman is a combination of having to be strong and independent and careerist, but still being able to devote to a man” – Thomas Vinterberg
There are several shots of nature in the film – an early shot of a tree, a snail on a plant, that could almost be Instagram pictures…
Thomas Vinterberg: Yeah.
That really roots it in the modern world in a really unusual way. What did those shots symbolise for you?
Thomas Vinterberg: The snail is definitely the oddest shot in the film, for me. In a way, it’s completely out of place. I think what makes it modern for me, is that we tried to get away from the sense of period – frocks and bonnets. We tried to dust it off by making it ring as truthfully, and as character-driven as possible, to get the layers into the character, and into the nature. To hear the grass grow, the snail crawl on the grass, to hear the river flow. We tried to make the landscapes talk with the characters, as Hardy does in the novel.
And fashion-wise, your Gabriel Oak could almost be from east London today.
Thomas Vinterberg: (laughs) That’s funny. I wanted to find that balance between being modern and contemporary in all departments – the writing of the dialogue, the costumes, the camera – we tried to stay loyal to Hardy and the period, and yet still interpret it through today’s eyes.