The hoary old clichés of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd don’t exactly mesh well with director Thomas Vinterberg’s low-key, (mostly) naturalistic approach in this adaptation of the classic novel that generally succeeds, even if the 1967 Julie Christie version remains the definitive film version of this story.
Still, the leads here are impeccably cast: Carey Mulligan is wonderful as Bathsheba Everdene, the independent woman who has the unlikely – in the late nineteenth century, anyway – fortune of being able to select from a number of potential suitors.
Mulligan was cast in the role before the director even finished the script, according to Vinterberg, and she’s a perfect fit: Bathsheba is one of her strongest roles, alongside An Education’s Jenny Mellor and The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanon.
Matthias Schoenaerts is also superb as Gabriel Oak, the simple farmer who lives on the land next to Bathsheba and proposes an unexpected marriage. Bathsheba is flattered but nonplussed, and the director is expert at conveying the type of pain that this can cause her potential suitors.
This is the same type of role Schoenaerts played earlier this year for director Alan Rickman in A Little Chaos, and the actor thrives at gaining our sympathies. It’s Oak – and not (necessarily) Mulligan’s Bathsheba – that we’re rooting for, in this version of the story, at least.
When Oak loses everything in the matter of minutes, and Bathsheba inherits a thriving farmland estate from her uncle, she seems to price herself out of his range. In need of work, however, Oak becomes her more-than-capable sheepherder, and does his best to help her in other regards, too.
A more appropriate suitor for the now-wealthy landowner might be new neighbour William Boldwood (played by Martin Sheen), who also operates a farm. Despite Mr. Boldwood’s age – and the fact that Bathsheba has no feelings for him – she sends him an anonymous Valentine, which prompts him to propose marriage, too.
Sheen’s work here is initially subtle, but soon becomes a one-note stupor; Boldwood’s actions do not seem to come from within his character, but rather by necessity of the story.
A third potential suitor, a soldier who was stood up at the altar and now instantly professes his love for Bathsheba after stumbling upon her in a forest, feels similarly one-note and story-driven. There’s little mystery behind Tom Sturridge’s Francis Troy, and his storyline suffers for it.
But the lead performances are good enough to make up for some of the film’s other shortcomings. This is always a good (if well-worn) story, with fine performances from the cast and fluid direction from Vinterberg that keeps things moving at a reasonable pace (at two hours, it never feels overlong).
Still, something feels a bit off; the director’s sterile approach to the material doesn’t allow us to revel in the more melodramatic elements inherent in the material.
In 2011’s (somewhat) similarly-themed Jane Eyre, director Cary Fukunaga was considerably more effective at mining the classic novel’s pleasures for contemporary audiences while still staying true to his source.
Note for animal lovers: a few scenes depicting the deaths of animals are quite difficult to watch.