Thomas Hardy’s tale of love between Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak is beautifully and believably depicted in this latest adaptation directed by Thomas Vinterberg. Lovers of the 1874 novel will not be disappointed in the screenplay written by David Nicholls nor will they be in the depiction of Hardy’s beloved Wessex. Newcomers to Hardy’s novel will be given an accurate introduction to the literary masterpiece, as well, and be drawn to read the book, hopefully. The lush scenery of South West England and a haunting musical score (composed by Craig Armstrong) provide a rich backdrop, but the characters are what take center stage in the film. Christian audiences will be pleased to see the biblical virtues of selflessness and humility showcased and that the filmmakers kept much of the biblical imagery in Hardy’s original story.
The story centers on the fates of the outspoken and independent Bathsheba (played by Carey Mulligan) and her first suitor, the humble and steadfast Gabriel Oaks (Matthias Schoenaerts). The film begins at a time before a reversal of fortunes falls upon the two main characters. Gabriel Oak is a landowner and Bathsheba Everdene is a penniless, orphan. Gabriel falls in love with her and proposes marriage in a simple, straightforward manner. Though flattered, she is not ready for marriage – being independent, passionate, and not ready to “be the property” of a husband. No, she refuses the humble shepherd for she has plans to “astonish” the world in which she lived. Her plans are soon realized.
Not long afterward, in true Hardy fashion, fate strikes and their fortunes are dramatically reversed. At this point, their two ways part. Yet, fate would bring them together once more when Gabriel is hired as a shepherd on her farm. Little did she know that she was hiring a shepherd for her heart, as well. Gabriel remains by her side as an honest and indispensable confidant while she, now a wealthy landowner, does indeed “astonish” the surrounding male-dominated county in rebuilding the farm.
What does this 19th-century tale offer to modern audiences? This latest rendering emphasizes something actually surprising and unexpected given that it is made in our age of radical feminism. It is Gabriel Oak’s character that shines the most, not the proto-feminist Bathsheba. In comparison to Hardy’s time, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme with regards to women’s rights. Hardy, being a Victorian realist – his novels primarily concerned with the more oppressive views of that age – was critical of the kind of unfair views and confining conventions foisted on women. Yet, he did not go as far as we are apt to go today in seeing no value in the unique roles that men and women offer each other in relationships. In Bathsheba and Gabriel, we see how men and women support one another in such a way as to ensure a flourishing in any role that fate might thrust on them.
Surprisingly and refreshingly, this aspect of Hardy’s novel was not downplayed in this modern retelling. What the movie offers is a beautifully balanced middle way – one that I propose is more akin to the biblical portrayal of the ideal male/female bond. The relationship between Gabriel and Bathsheba, though unequal in earthly terms of authority and wealth, is one of mutual dependence. We see Oak taking on a role of both counselor and conscience with Bathsheba – roles that in her striving towards independence she struggles to admit her need for. She is not unlike the modern feminist in this regard, nor is she unlike all of us in our relationship with the Lord. Her struggle is best seen in the various times she repels Gabriel only to find herself in desperate situations in which only he can help. The filmmakers’ clever use of a recurring theme of Bathsheba galloping after Gabriel on a horse when he is needed is particularly moving (and surprising) here. In the end, the film resists the urge to pander to our more extreme modern views on what women require to thrive.
Gabriel Oak also seems to be an embodiment of the biblical virtue of selflessness. We see in his actions towards Bathsheba the Philippians admonition to refrain from “being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity,” but rather “in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself.” Indeed, vanity itself can be seen as a fateful character flaw of every major character apart from Gabriel. He alone is able to move past rejection and carry on. In fact, he is required to go so far as to be under the authority of the very woman who rejected his offer of marriage and, despite his continuing affections for her, witness her being courted and then married by another far less worthy man, Frank Troy. No other major character is able to overcome this challenge to their pride. Though Bathsheba does eventually overcome the rejection of her husband, she only does so after tremendous tragedies and with the selfless and steady support of Gabriel.
The screenwriters’ portrayal of the main antagonist Frank Troy is disappointing, though not unexpected. Hardy’s Troy was an absolute reprobate whose self-focus and ambition led to much pain and misery for almost anyone that had the misfortune to be close to him. In this, we have a vivid portrayal of the idea that no man is really an island and one’s actions do not occur in a vacuum, but most certainly always affect the fates of others. In my opinion, the movie’s treatment of Troy is far too sympathetic for this important idea to be expressed. I suspect that the writers thought his character was too one-dimensional for modern audiences and sought to produce a more complex nature. It is very much like our culture to downplay the consequences of selfish behavior, especially in the realm of sexual ethics, in seeking to communicate life’s complexity. This was certainly a missed opportunity.
In the end, though, audiences that are familiar with Hardy’s masterpiece will delight in this love story. Christian viewers will be particularly pleased to see virtue awarded and a biblical understanding of the complementary roles of men and women advanced. It is this very kind of relationship that enables Hardy’s heroine to both overcome the confining customs of her day and have the hope of a richly satisfying marriage after much heartbreak and loss. It is wonderful to see characters portrayed and applauded like Gabriel Oak’s on the big screen. Everyone can learn something from his selfless devotion. Today’s women, influenced by the more simplistic and radical feminist notions that men are dispensable, will be reminded how a virtuous man adds stability to their lives. Modern men will be given a much-needed model of a selfless, protective, yet non-domineering husband – a husband that gently leads and builds-up.