Bathsheba Everdene, the heroine of Far From the Madding Crowd, is emphatic on the subject of men: She doesn’t need one. She requires neither money nor security. A wealthy uncle has left her an inheritance of a large farm, and she dives enthusiastically into the running of it. Just her luck, then, that not one but three very different possibilities for wedlock present themselves.
Thomas Hardy’s novel was first published in serial form, and its soapy, romantic appeal is evident throughout Thomas Vinterberg’s sumptuous, entertaining film. Director of The Hunt, one of 2014’s foreign language Oscar nominees, Vinterberg is up against tough comparisons not only to the original material but also John Schlesinger’s esteemed 1967 film version that starred Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, Alan Bates and Peter Finch.
But Vinterberg displays a solid grasp on this melodramatic material, and his recreation of a love rectangle in 19th-century England is engaging, lush and romantic. Working with screenwriter David Nicholls (author of the novels One Day and Us), he adds his own strokes to Hardy’s work, emphasizing the dangerous connection between unpredictable nature and financial stability in these rural lives. He paints Bathsheba in a feminist light, rendering her not merely a flirt but a cheerful, intelligent, independent soul who’s ignorant of the workings of her own heart.
Vinterberg’s best decision was casting the terrific Carey Mulligan (An Education, Drive, The Great Gatsby) as Bathsheba. Vinterberg shoots her in close-up after close-up, rarely allowing her far from the camera’s gaze, and she carries the film with grace and humor through Bathsheba’s short-lived triumphs and disastrous mistakes.
Equally adept at the close-up work is Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone and Bullhead), stoic and enduring as the honest, reliable farmer Gabriel Oak, the first to propose to Bathsheba back when her prospects weren’t much and he had his own farm. Then tragedy reversed their roles. He can work for Bathsheba, but English society being what it is, he has no hope of marrying her. Schoenaerts has to convey a lot of emotion without saying much, and he handles Gabriel’s quiet, hopeless longing beautifully.
As Bathsheba’s wealthy older neighbor Mr. Boldwood — who represents her best hope for stability — Michael Sheen (Showtime’s Masters of Sex) displays a wrenching vulnerability (one scene in which he confesses his unhappiness to Gabriel is particularly moving). As the dashing soldier Frank Troy, who introduces Bathsheba to sexual desire, Tom Sturridge (Pirate Radio, Effie Gray) can’t quite live up to the intensity of Terence Stamp, who played the role before him. But his easygoing pretty boy is winning enough to be believable as a serious contender for Bathsheba’s heart.
The film never allows any of its characters to fall into stereotype; they are complex creatures, full of anger and disappointment and passion, and even the weakest among them is not bereft of honor. A thoughtful literary adaptation that lives up to expectations, Far From the Madding Crowd breathes exciting new life into a classic story.
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple, Jessica Barden.
Director: Thomas Vinterberg.
Screenwriter: David Nicholls. Based on the novel by Thomas Hardy.
A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 119 minutes. Some sexuality and violence. Playing in Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Arts Cinema, Aventura, South Beach, Sunset; in Broward: Gateway, Cinemark Paradise; in Palm Beach: Mizner Park, Shadowood, Palace, Delray.