“Far From the Madding Crowd” isn’t a Masterpiece Theatre style remounting of the 1874 Thomas Hardy novel. Instead it’s vibrant soap opera, complete with love triangles, pregnancy, suicide, love sick neighbours, crimes of passion, more marriage proposals than you can shake a chaff fork at, missed opportunities, bad decisions, broken hearts and petticoats.
Carey Mulligan is Bathsheba Everdene, the headstrong and beautiful mistress of a sprawling farm inherited from her uncle. She’s independent—“I have no need for a husband,” she says.—but also an irresistible man magnet, beating off marriage proposals like Neo in a roomful of Agent Smiths. Suitors include manly sheep farmer (and aptly named) Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), high-strung middle-aged landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and a dandy in a Scarlet uniform, Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge) who uses swordplay as foreplay.
Through reversals of fortune and chance encounters Bathsheba perseveres, making her way through the world, the very embodiment of resilience and grace.
Director Thomas Vinterberg breathes new life into the story by preserving the classic themes of the novel on marriage, class and gender while not being precious about it. The film’s pacing is as bucolic as the rural English countryside setting, but the movie feels very contemporary in its approach. It’s a rom com, without much com. There’s even the 19th century equivalent of the romantic movie staple, the Run to the Airport to Declare Undying Love.
Vinterberg takes advantage of the setting, using nature to guide the lives of the farmers—each changing season brings new developments in Bathsheba’s life—and human nature to explore the relationships that make up the tale’s love triangle. It’s mannered but clever, lively direction that values the location—it was shot on location in Dorset, the novel’s setting—and text while focussing on the themes that make a one-hundred-and-forty year old story seem fresh and universal in appeal.
Mulligan and Schoenaerts generate heat in their chaste scenes, slowly building their relationship through mutual respect. He is stoic, she is grounded but wistful.
“It is my intention to astonish you all,” Bathsheba says to her collected staff, and once again Mulligan does impress with a performance that digs deep to deliver a nuanced but soulful take on the shrewd character.
“Far From the Madding Crowd” is an abbreviated retelling of the story. The last version, from director John Schlesinger and star Julie Christie, was one hour longer but Vinterberg brings a luminous energy and modern feel to an old tale.