Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple, Jessica Barden.
Thomas Hardy’s lyrical pastoral romances set in his fictitious Wessex are often quite grim and bleak tales, and it is easy to see their continuing appeal to filmmakers. Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd, written in 1874, tells the story of independent minded Bathsheba Everdene, who is wooed by three very different suitors before marrying one of them. It was sumptuously filmed in 1966 by John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man, etc), and starred Julie Christie, who delivered a definitive performance as the headstrong and passionate Bathsheba, a woman ahead of her time.
Here Carey Mulligan (An Education, etc) steps into the role, and she brings a more modern sensibility to the character, who is widely regarded as one of Hardy’s most modern heroines. Bathsheba is an independently wealthy woman who has inherited a working farm from her late uncle. She attracts the romantic attention of three suitors.
There is Gabriel Oak (played by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, recently seen in A Little Chaos, etc), a farmer who had fallen on hard times who now works as a shepherd for Bathsheba. She rebuffs his marriage proposal though, preferring to retain her independence. “I’d hate to be somebody’s property,” she tells him. There is also the wealthy, shy and sensitive but older landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who is devastated when she turns down his marriage proposal.
Both men are a little shocked then when she impulsively marries the impetuous, reckless and self-destructive Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge). A soldier who was jilted at the altar when his previous fiancee turned up at the wrong church, Troy manages to sweep Bathsheba off her feet, and a whirlwind courtship ends up in a disastrous marriage. Troy’s womanising ways, his gambling, his hedonism and his overly possessive nature soon cause trouble within the marriage.
While a miniseries would seem to be the best way to give Hardy’s sweeping novel the treatment it deserves, this latest film adaptation is far from the staid and stuffy period drama we have come to expect from Victorian literature. The director is Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt, etc), one of the creators of the minimalist Dogme movement along with Lars Von Trier, but he has a darker sensibility that seems perfectly suited to the tone of Hardy’s novel.
As adapted by David Nicholls (Great Expectations, etc), this version brings a more modern, contemporary attitude to this melodramatic bodice tearer. Although reasonably faithful to the source material, it is also 40 minutes shorter than Schlesinger’s version, which means it doesn’t have the same languid pacing, but rather races breathlessly through the more dramatic elements, highlighting the palpable sexual tension and tragedy.
The film is beautiful to look at thanks to the gorgeous lensing of Vinterberg’s regular cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who makes good use of the rural Devonshire locations, and often uses natural lighting to good effect. But Christensen also works in close up much of the time, giving the film a more intimate feel. This is a handsomely mounted production, with costumes, realistic period detail and Kave Quinn’s production design adding to the authentic feel of the material. Hardy explored the troubled, internal feelings of the characters and the film captures the rhythms of rural life beautifully. Vinterberg makes the class distinctions of the era very obvious.
Schoenaerts brings a suitably brooding quality to his performance as Oak (a role played by a similarly intense Peter Finch in the original version). He has a great screen presence and shares a palpable sexual chemistry with Mulligan, and Vinterberg draws the best out of him here. Sturridge is something of a cold fish as Troy and he lacks the intensity and swagger that Terence Stamp brought to the role. Sheen is suitably stoic as Boldwood, and he effectively manages to convey his melancholy nature.
Hardy often creates strong but doomed female characters (Tess, etc), and Bathsheba is one of his finest creations, a modern and passionate woman wanting to retain control of her own life. In one of her best performances, Mulligan brings a feisty quality, strength, confidence and intelligence to the role of the flawed Bathsheba. But as good as she is with her interpretation of the character, she still pales in comparison to the luminous Christie.
This rendition of Far From The Madding Crowd is beautiful looking. seductive and intelligent adaptation, but it somehow lacks the enduring appeal of Schlesinger’s film.