“Too independent”—Bathsheba Everdene’s bemused description of herself in the opening lines of “Far From the Madding Crowd” hints at the story’s central question: What becomes of a woman who is “too independent” in the eyes of society?
It is a question that is as timely now as it was back in 1874, when Thomas Hardy created his beloved heroine. Nearly a century and a half later, Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” has stood the test of time, having been previously adapted to the screen in 1967 (with Julie Christie as its leading lady). So, why adapt the novel again?—To bring something new to the table, one would hope. Moreover, what can Thomas Vinterberg’s 2015 film offer to a contemporary audience, regardless of their familiarity or lack thereof with Hardy’s oeuvre? A lot, as it turns out, mostly thanks to the restrained hand of its director, and excellent performances by both leading and supporting players.
Adapted to the screen by David Nicholls, “Far From the Madding Crowd” pits Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) at the center of a love square of sorts, forcing her to weigh the affections of three vastly different men: A wealthy, middle-aged bachelor (Michael Sheen), a loyal, hard-working shepherd (Matthias Schoenaerts), and a reckless, virile sergeant (Tom Sturridge). But don’t mistake Bathsheba for your archetypal, marriage-obsessed Victorian; she’s quite the opposite, placing her life’s passion into running the large farm bequeathed to her by a late uncle, and letting the bewildering events of courtship fall around her as they may. As the iron-willed mistress of the farm, Mulligan gives a nuanced performance, revealing Bathsheba’s strength and naivete in equal proportions. She and Schoenaerts (a captivating Gabriel Oak) share a genuine on-screen chemistry, making their complex friendship irresistible to watch. The romantic extremes to which the actions of a desperately lonely Mr. Boldwood (Sheen) and an overtly sexual Sergeant Troy (Sturridge) are relegated lend as much humor to the story as they do tragedy. At times, perhaps by nature of Hardy’s story, Bathsheba’s romantic travails are taken to comically ridiculous heights. In one church scene, the camera neatly frames a singing Gabriel Oak and Mr. Boldwood; Bathsheba casts darting glances their way, as if in an episode of Victorian Bachelorette. Who will she choose?—It’s enough to make one laugh out loud.
A Hardy adaptation practically requires lush cinematography, and Charlotte Bruus Christensen more than delivers with sensuous scenes of pastoral England and its elegant Victorian estates. Thomas Vinterberg too was a brilliant choice for Director, known for his ultra contemporary films, “The Celebration” and “The Hunt.” A pioneer of the Danish film movement Dogme 95, Vinterberg’s naturalistic, straightforward approach to filmmaking lends itself to breathing new life and a sense of immediacy into the Victorian era story. Indeed, the film’s quieter, scoreless moments are the ones that resonate most truthfully. In one particularly stirring scene, we watch as a broken Gabriel Oak kneels to the earth, having just witnessed his flock of sheep hurtle off a cliff, effectively destroying his livelihood. That this moment is presented without pageantry or overarching musical accompaniment speaks to Vinterberg’s devastating knack for realism.
“Far From the Madding Crowd” opens in theaters May 1st.