Far From the Madding Crowd
2015, PG-13, 119 min. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg. Starring Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple, Jessica Barden.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 8, 2015
Although Thomas Hardy occasionally tacked subtitles onto his books, lending readers a clue about the true character of poor Tess of the d’Urbervilles (“A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented”) or the rough plot of The Mayor of Casterbridge (“The Life and Death of a Man of Character”), he didn’t supply one for his 1874 novel, Far From the Madding Crowd. Let’s give him a hand, then: Call it “Three Suitors and a Lady.” That’s lady with a lower-case l; while the attractive, educated, and sharply independent Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan) does inherit a sizable farm, she’s no corset with a title awaiting a marriage proposal. She’s a working woman with dirty nails. And yet she can’t seem to avoid men with matrimony in mind. Bathsheba is wooed and pursued over the course of Thomas Vinterberg’s fashionable film adaptation by three very different admirers: the honorable and devoted sheep farmer, Gabriel Oak (Schoenaerts); William Boldwood (Sheen, especially good), a wealthy, neighboring landowner whose infatuation with Bathsheba discombobulates him; and Sergeant Troy (Sturridge), a nattily mustached officer who wields a very sexy saber.
In adapting Hardy’s novel, director Vinterberg – a Dogme 95 founding member traveling far afield from his already-wide sweep of subject and stylization (The Hunt, It’s All About Love, The Celebration) – and screenwriter David Nicholls (One Day) have two precedents to consider: not just Hardy’s source material, but also John Schlesinger’s 1967 witty, feverish go at the story. Schlesinger’s 167-minute version was of its time – back when British actors with broken teeth still crowded casting calls, audiences didn’t automatically guffaw at grossly Freudian swordplay, and whole minutes could be lavished on a cloud’s shadow crossing a meadow. Vinterberg’s adaptation is more efficient, and less soul-stirring, but it, too, is a complement of its time: Bathsheba has been reborn as a matter-of-fact feminist heroine. (A fashion-forward one, to boot: I swooned more for Bathsheba’s burgundy leather jacket than for any of her boyfriends.) The pivotal sword scene, in which Sgt. Troy excites and alarms Bathsheba, is more plainly articulated here, and becomes a kind of conversation with her previous, girlish declaration that she’s only interested in a man who will tame her. When Troy nicks a curl of her hair with the tip of his sword, you can almost see the comic book-like bubble rise over her head: Sex! Danger! Yes, please!
But sex and danger are in short supply. The filmmakers fall in line with the contemporary approach to adaptations of Great Books, in step with other worthy but muted endeavors like Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre and Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice. They are decorous, deferential to landscapes and lamp lighting, and more cerebral, more circumspect, in their passions. (Schlesinger’s high-spiritedness – which came awfully close to outright hysteria – is no longer à la mode.) Also uniting these Aughties films is a sincere commitment to exploring the complexity of their heroines, even if that means future-fitting them with a 21st century modality, which is how Far From the Madding Crowd becomes a referendum on the modern Cosmopolitan woman’s romantic dilemma: Is she looking for erotic passion, protection, or equal partnership? It’s all a little dutiful-seeming, but the making of the movie is Carey Mulligan. Too often, the actress gets stuck in vitamin-D-deficient parts, wan and acted upon, not the agent of her own change. Here, you can see her brain working, as well as her body – it’s an athletic performance – and her bemusement, too. She’s got the best lopsided smile in the business, and she uses it well to size up her three bachelors. They’re just no match for her.