Movie review: 'Far From the Madding Crowd'

Carey Mulligan shines in darkly poetic novel adaptation.

COLIN COVERT
Updated 5/8/2015

Like optimistic Jane Austen, brooding Thomas Hardy wrote about 19th-century England’s big three — romance, finance and real estate. “Far From the Madding Crowd,” Hardy’s story of unrequited longing, asks: What brings happiness to marriage beyond capricious luck? Can life in the landed gentry promise contentment? How can captivating, ambitious Bathsheba Everdene find gladness? By running a thriving farm or marrying and settling down?

Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s first-class adaptation explores those themes and more. He and his sterling international team seem fully at ease transforming Hardy’s literary classic into a trim, largely faithful account, as darkly poetic as the novel, but finally more crowd-pleasing. It’s beautifully old and atmospheric without feeling dated.

In this proto-feminist version, Bathsheba is a sort of pioneer suffragette on a challenging emotional trajectory. Screenwriter David Nicholls advances Bathsheba, one of several equal characters in Hardy’s book, to the crux of the film. It’s a rich role that moves Carey Mulligan to the lead of this year’s Oscar race. Mulligan, always impressive, has never been finer than as this sharp, lovely ingénue, a brisk performance steps above the frisky, kittenish Julie Christie in John Schlesinger’s 1967 variant.

Bathsheba is a prize in her rustic home county, even early on when she is penniless. Nearby farmer Gabriel Oak (Belgian star Matthias Schoenaerts with a fine midland English accent) touches her spirit by offering her a newborn lamb to raise. Oak, whose hunkish masculinity, sincerity and vigorous work ethic make him a fine suitor, follows with a calm marriage proposal, and she declines on the spot. A husband, she explains with shrewd maturity, is not in her current plans. Bathsheba follows cool-minded individual pursuits, not the pleasures of the flesh.

At least not just yet. As Bathsheba advances to worldly success, Mulligan grows ever more stunning in revealingly tight dresses of vivid red and blue. They set her apart, a standout from the landscape palette of brown and green in Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s superb cinematography. When a disaster at the nearby seaside cliffs closes Oak’s farm, Bathsheba hires him to tend her livestock. She invites him to join her at the servants’ harvest suppers while keeping him at a refined arm’s length. These actions, both charitable and superior, make her helper quietly heartsore as he sees her pursued by two new suitors.

William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a wealthy estate owner, is smitten by her playful Valentine’s Day greeting. Sheen offers one of those woe-filled, middle-aged performances that Anthony Hopkins delivered decades ago. When Boldwood’s romantic appeals are courteously rejected, he feels a piercing grief and solitude that make him Oak’s kindred spirit.

Each is dashed when Bathsheba is wooed off her feet by dashing Sgt. Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), whose caddish magnetism she finds irresistible. Troy seduces Bathsheba with a show of his combat skill, slashing his saber near her skin like a maniacal courtship dance. This is the sort of flirtation that leads to tragic results. It would be a laughable scene if Mulligan didn’t look so aflame or Sturridge looked less rakish.

Vinterberg’s elegant film is a departure from love-story genre standards. It gives more attention to the drama of the heroine’s egocentric impulses than to her lengthy game of romance roulette. Mulligan handles her role like a chic warrior choosing her own destiny, whether she’s in a skintight chestnut leather jacket and galloping her filly, or turning conversations with gentlemen into contests of will. The film makes her a ravishing heroine, though she loses a sad number of battles, and allies, before winning the peace.

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