Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Writer: David Nicholls
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple, Jessica Barden
Carey Mulligan is the undoubted star of Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Vinterberg’s enjoyable adaptation of the Thomas Hardy classic. Her Bathsheba Everdene is a multitude of contradictions; self-assured yet vulnerable, worldly yet naive, fiercely independent yet just as susceptible to the throes of love as the rest of us. Mulligan portrays Bathsheba with a distinct lack of charm as compared to other female protagonists of classic literature adaptations, but is equally compelling and moving. It is just as easy to fall in love with Bathsheba as she firmly rebuffs her numerous male suitors as it is to empathise with her when the steely armour that she has put up around herself comes crumbling down. Putting her at the centre of the narrative—Hardy’s novel focuses equally on five characters—is a masterstroke by David Nicholls.
We are introduced to Bathsheba through the adoring and broody gaze of Matthias Schoenaerts’ Gabriel Oak, her handsome neighbour who owns a sheep farm. He asks her to marry him—the first of many marriage proposals offered to her—but she declines, gently but firmly. A role-reversal brings them further into each other’s orbit; Bathsheba gains her uncle’s fortune while Gabriel loses his, and he subsequently begins to work for her. Their admiration for each other is pushed into the background as she is courted by two other suitors, namely Sergeant Troy, a soldier to whom Bathsheba is instantly attracted to on a purely physical level, and William Boldwood, an older, wealthy farmer whose romantic interest in her is unrequited. Soap opera-esque tropes in the forms of deaths, a surprise pregnancy and an imprisonment get in the way of a potential happy ending. The level of melodrama is ramped up high, but never plays out in a way that is eye-rollingly cheesy or contrived.
As an adaptation, Vinterberg and Nicholls do an admirable job of condensing the novel down to two hours. Much of that is down to focusing the film on Bathsheba; it would have been a near impossible task to have the plot revolve around all five main characters and give their narratives the depth needed for it to work. The pacing, particularly in the second half, is the only real flaw of the film. It races through plot points without giving them much time to settle and impact the audience. Neither does it give much time for Bathsheba’s suitors to develop into fleshed out characters. Whilst Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, and especially Schoenaerts all give solid performances, all of their characters are too one-dimensional to be compelling independently of the object of their affections.
Vinterberg’s direction allows his lead actor to shine, favouring a simple if not unspectacular approach to directorial flourishes. The one standout exception is the swordplay scene between Bathsheba and Sergeant Troy, in which he practically seduces her with every thrust of his sword; Vinterberg’s quick cuts capture perfectly the lust and want building throughout the scene. The cinematography is gorgeous and aesthetically pleasing, capturing the beauty of the English countryside well. Technically, Far From the Madding Crowd doesn’t particularly stand out from the plethora of period dramas in the same vein as the film, but it’s refreshing to see a period drama that celebrates the agency of its female protagonist as well as this. Its Bathsheba’s independence that is far more important than any potential happy ending.