Though of modest means, Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is a woman well ahead of her Victorian England time. When she inherits her late uncle’s estate, she takes firm control of her new-found wealth and manages her lands with skill and intelligence. A woman like this will attract a man – in Bathsheba’s case, it is three – in “Far from the Madding Crowd.”
I saw the original “Far from the Madding Crowd” back in the late 60s and thought it a bodice ripping chick flick. Not so with the updated telling of the Thomas Hardy 1874 novel of the title by director Thomas Vinterberg an scripter David Nicholls. The newest “Far from the Madding Crowd” (there are three other film adaptations, one dating back to 1915) is a modern feeling film that is a showcase for the talented Carey Mulligan.
Bathsheba may not have come from a pampered home but she has an innate intelligence and is capable of many things, including running her inherited land. Before her windfall, she came to the attention of Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenearts), a ruggedly handsome sheep farmer who, when he meets Bathsheba, asks her to marry. Of course, she turns him down, but there is a smile in her eyes. She also comes to the attention of wealthy landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) whose estate borders Bathsheba’s. He, too, has designs of marriage with his willful neighbor.
Things get more complicated when Bathsheba, quite literally, trips over Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge) while she was inspecting her property. She is immediately taken by the handsome soldier and a romance and marriage ensue. But, it is not a marriage made in heaven and Bathsheba must deal with her husband’s ever-increasing gambling debts. But, “Far from the Madding Crown” is mainly about Bathsheba, her strong will and ability to overcome every adversity she faces.
Carrie Mulligan is the center of the film and she gives depth to her Bathsheba and garners genuine empathy. Matthias Schoenearts, who came to my attention in 2011 with the Belgian film “Bullhead,” is a smoldering volcano of a man and, from the start; you root for him to get the girl. Michael Sheen is quite sympathetic as the lonely neighbor who longs to marry Bathsheba. The only off note in the cast is Tom Sturridge as Frank Troy. Nothing about his character make me believe that Bathsheba would even look at him, never mind marry – especially when put side by side with Gabriel Oak.
The production is outstanding and the 1870 setting is beautifully rendered. All aspects of the behind the camera work are deftly handled, including the lush photography. I went in to seeing “Far from the Madding Crowd” with mixed feelings – I love Carey Mulligan but not so the 1967 film. To my pleasant surprise, I enjoyed far more than I expected. I give it a B+.
As a young Victorian maid working on her aunt's Dorset farm, Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan, "Inside Llewyn Davis") arouses the interest of sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts, "Rust and Bone," "The Drop"). But this independent woman didn't want to define herself through a man, and when she inherits her uncle's farm, she boldly decides to run it herself while juggling new attentions "Far from the Madding Crowd."
The most well known screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel about a forward thinking woman is John Schlesinger's disappointing 1967 Julie Christie vehicle. After tackling Hardy's 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' for a BBC production, novelist/screenwriter David Nicholls ("One Day") has taken a crack for director Thomas Vinterberg ("The Celebration," "The Hunt") whose star Carey Mulligan is much better suited to the material than Christie was. Bathsheba's three suitors represent the things women seek in a relationship - intimate friendship, sex and comfortable safety - but the new film flubs the character of the seducer. As played by a young Terrence Stamp in Schlesinger's version, Sergeant Francis Troy was a sexy, flirtatious cad, but for some odd reason he's been softened here and Tom Sturridge ("On the Road," "Effie Gray"), the man Bathsheba loses sense over, makes for an inexplicable match. One cannot help but wonder what, say, Robert Pattinson might have brought to this role.
The landscape is a character unto itself in Hardy's novel and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen ("The Hunt") makes us feel the scope and verdancy of those hills, rolling off towards cliffs lining the sea. It is there that Oak's fortunes turn, his mad dog driving his flock off its edges as he sleeps. Fate, another defining force at work here, brings him unknowingly upon Bathsheba's farm as its workers try to fight a fire. It is Gabriel who saves the integral barn and the woman he hoped to make his wife becomes his employer.
Giddy with her new role, Bathsheba and her companion Liddy (Jessica Barden, "Hanna") make an impression at the local grain exchange where Miss Everdene ("The Hunger Games's" Katniss is a namesake) refuses to be taken for a fool. There she spots wealthy neighbor William Boldwood (Michael Sheen, Showtime's 'Masters of Sex'), whom Liddy advises is quite the catch, but one whom several local women failed to hook. When Liddy finds an elaborate Valentine card going through paperwork, Bathsheba impulsively sends it to Boldwood, her wax seal stamping 'Marry Me' on its envelope. It turns his head, but he's sent into a tailspin when Bathsheba only promises to consider his marriage proposal rather than accept it and one night, after rejecting his offer of walking her home, she bumps into Sergeant Troy in a hedgerow in the dark, becoming entangled in the young soldier's spurs (what she doesn't know is that he intended to marry one of her maids, Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple, "Maleficent"), but due to a mixup believes he was jilted at the altar.)
Each of the men have at least one scene with Bathsheba which defines what marriage to each would be like. Gabriel hangs in the background, always supportive but also always honest, chastising the young woman for leading on Boldwood. She reacts by firing him, but when her sheep become ill she must eat humble pie and as the farm flourishes, they work together in happy companionability. Troy shows off his swordsmanship in a display of sexual frenzy, bringing his razor sharp weapon as close as possible to Bathsheba without harming her (this scene is paralleled by Oak showing Everdene how to hone a blade, a more mutual exhibit with a more practical end but nonetheless dripping with unstated desire). Finally, when Boldwood comes upon Everdene and her workers dining outside, he joins her song in lovely harmony.
Her lust aroused by Troy, Bathsheba impulsively marries him (Gabriel had warned her against this, too) and tragedy befalls the innocents caught in the wedding's wake. Vinterberg adds a scene to the last of these which is incredibly moving, reminiscent of Hitchcock's "Rebecca" yet evoking a different emotion. The Danish director has also found a more satisfying way to close his film after Schlesinger's abruptly happy ending.
Carey Mulligan is a terrific choice for Bathsheba, modern yet period perfect. She gives the character a spine of steel tempered with indecision and failures of confidence which we can read flickering across the actress's face. Belgian actor Schoenaerts delivers a credible English accent and goes the strong, silent route, a wise choice that allows his costar to come to him (he's like the continent's answer to Tom Hardy). One cannot put the blame for the failure of Sturridge's character on the actor, as this film's adaptation undermines both his sensuality and his cruelty, but the actor doesn't generate the heat that makes Bathsheba's capitulation credible. The real standout here is Michael Sheen, whose Boldwood comes to life before our eyes, his eyes expressing hopeful yearning, his literal yet kindly haunting of Bathsheba's farm only recognized by Oak for what it is. It's a heartbreaking performance.
While Hardy's tale is incredibly modern for its time, Vinterberg has further freshened the material, most notably with Janet Patterson's ("The Piano," "Bright Star") costuming. When we first see Bathsheba, she rides a horse in a fitted copper colored leather jacket. It's sleek and practical and complementary both to the actress and the landscape. Smartly tailored coats and dresses paired with short brimmed banded hats mark a stylish businesswoman while farm clothes are pretty yet functional.
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