Film Review: ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’

'Far From the Madding Crowd' Review:

Carey Mulligan makes a fine Bathsheba Everdene in Thomas Vinterberg's solid but unremarkable version of the Thomas Hardy classic.

When Thomas Hardy named his fourth novel “Far From the Madding Crowd” in 1874, he almost certainly meant the title ironically — a riposte to the notion that the rural folk of his beloved English countryside somehow led simpler lives, less tempest-tossed by desire, than their urban counterparts. But you could almost mistake Hardy for a literalist on the basis of Thomas Vinterberg’s calm, stately new film version — the fourth official filming of the novel (which first reached the screen as a 1915 silent), and a perfectly respectable, but never particularly stirring, night at the movies. Probably the Danish Vinterberg’s most accomplished foray into English-language filmmaking (after the gun-control allegory “Dear Wendy” and the futuristic Joaquin Phoenix-Claire Danes romance “It’s All About Love”), this pared-down if generally faithful adaptation benefits from a solid cast and impeccable production values, though the passions that drive Hardy’s characters remain more stated than truly felt. Still, the “Downton Abbey” set will find much to enjoy here, and should generate pleasing returns for this May 1 Fox Searchlight release.

Despite the charges of misogyny that have repeatedly been hurled at him through the retroactive prism of political correctness, Hardy was a writer of many tough-minded, resourceful female characters whose independence of mind and body set them at odds with the patriarchal codes of the Victorian era. Among the most enduring of those heroines is “Madding Crowd’s” Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a plucky, willful young woman of no particular means (like her latter-day namesake, Katniss), who nevertheless sees no compelling reason to settle down with a man she doesn’t truly love — even one as modest and sincere in his affections as the farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), neighbor to Bathsheba’s aunt among the rolling Dorset hills. Gabriel’s hand, clumsily proffered and instantly rejected, is but the first of three that come Bathsheba’s way over the course of the novel (which, looked at one way, resembles a 19th-century “Dating Game”), as romantic and financial fates rise and fall, and time, as it is wont to do, marches on undeterred.

If Vinterberg does not immediately spring to mind as a likely Hardy interpreter, it may be because the author’s countryman, Michael Winterbottom, seemed to hold exclusive Hardy mining rights for most of the past two decades, during which he delivered a superior “Jude,” an India-set “Tess” (“Trishna”) and a massively underrated version of “The Mayor of Casterbridge” (transposed to the American West and retitled “The Claim”). But consider Vinterberg’s earlier work — especially his breakthrough “The Celebration” and the recent child-abuse drama “The Hunt” — and you can see that he shares a certain Hardyan understanding of insular communities and the sudden shifts of fate that can turn a patron into a pariah, or vice versa. He’s also found a very fine Bathsheba in Mulligan, who, at 29 (practically over-the-hill by Victorian/Hollywood standards), has added an appealing wistfulness to her fresh-faced-ingenue’s repertoire. Her Bathsheba is a less impetuous, more grounded creature than the one played by a radiant Julie Christie in John Schlesinger’s 1967 film version. When she delivers the character’s famous declaration, “I shall astonish you all,” Mulligan makes it sound like the person she’s most trying to convince is herself.

It is Bathsheba’s sudden ascent (via inheritance) to the land-owning class that ushers Hardy’s story into its second act, and which drives a further wedge between Bathsheba and Gabriel, who, having suffered his own reversal of fortune, finds himself working as a shepherd in her employ. From there, he suffers (mostly) in silence as Bathsheba capriciously flirts with the wealthy bachelor farmer Boldwood (Michael Sheen), before finally surrendering to the charms of the young Sgt. Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), himself on the rebound from the servant girl Fanny Robin (Juno Temple), who left him high and dry at the altar when she went to the wrong church by mistake. (Lo, the life-altering crises that have been averted by smartphones.)

Frank is, literally and figuratively, a swordsman of some repute — the basis for one of Hardy’s most famous passages, in which the uniformed soldier parries and thrusts his blade at a quivering Bathsheba, a transparent act of swordplay as foreplay. (“She took up her position as directed,” Hardy writes.) It becomes, in turn, the best scene in Vinterberg’s film, thanks largely to the cockeyed swagger of Sturridge, who has never seemed quite this dangerously alive in a movie. Reckless bravado seeps through Frank’s pores like a fever, and his words tumble forth in a sleepy purr, as if his every utterance were a seduction, or a dare. None of the other characters burn quite so brightly — in particular Gabriel. This may be the first time that the chameleonic, Belgian-born Schoenaerts (who made a big impression as Marion Cotillard’s brooding boxer beau in “Rust and Bone” and again in last year’s “The Drop”) has seemed less than entirely sure of himself onscreen, underplaying so much (and grappling with a come-and-go British accent) that the already recessive Gabriel risks becoming a peripheral character in what is, ostensibly, his own story. (It’s hard not to imagine what Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” star, Mads Mikkelsen, might have done differently with the role.)

Of course, one of the challenges in adapting “Madding Crowd” is that the novel has five main characters united by an omniscient narrator who not only knows the inner workings of their hearts and minds, but editorializes on their behavior as he goes along. Stripped of that device, Vinterberg’s movie (which was scripted by veteran British screenwriter David Nicholls) sometimes seems like a compass unable to find true north. And where Schlesinger’s film seemed to creak under the weight of its own epic portent, the new one lurches from one major event to the next without quite enough down time in-between, a Cliff’s Notes approach that clocks in under two hours (one full hour less than the ’67 version) but compromises the story’s panoramic sweep. It also reduces Fanny (and, with her, Temple’s guileless performance) to glorified cameo status, making it hard to understand why her ultimate fate, when revealed, sends another character into paroxysms of despair.

What does register at every turn is a vibrant sense of time and place that pulls us into Hardy’s bygone world even when the drama falters. Shooting on location in the real Dorset, Vinterberg and regular cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen rely mostly on natural light and spacious widescreen frames to capture the land in all its rugged, forbidding beauty — a look as transporting, in its way, as the fog-shrouded majesty of Polanski’s “Tess.” Kave Quinn’s muddied, weathered sets and Janet Patterson’s costumes add to the sense of a hard-working society where function trumps decorous forms. Composer Craig Armstrong’s richly orchestrated but sparingly used score does its best to articulate the bottled-up emotions the characters themselves can not.

Film Review: 'Far From the Madding Crowd'

Reviewed at Fox screening room, New York, March 26, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 118 MIN.

Production

(U.S.-U.K.) A Fox Searchlight Pictures release and presentation in association with BBC Films and TSG Entertainment of a DNA Films production. Produced by Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich. Executive producer, Christine Langan. Co-producer, Anita Overland.

Crew

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg. Screenplay, David Nicholls, based on the novel by Thomas Hardy. Camera (Technicolor prints, widescreen), Charlotte Bruus Christensen; editor, Claire Simpson; music, Craig Armstrong; production designer, Kave Quinn; costume designer, Janet Patterson; sound (Dolby Digital), Mitch Low; sound designer, Glenn Freemantle; associate producer, Joanne Smith; casting, Nina Gold, Theo Park.

With

Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple, Jessica Barden.

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  1. Evelyn says:

    Absolutely loved this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel. Carey Mulligan is suburb as Bathsheba Everdene, the spirited, independent woman in Victorian England who attracts the attention of not one, not two, but three handsome men. I was smitten from the first scene with Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak. I was equally repelled by Tom Sturridge as the handsome, but slippery Sgt. Troy. Alas…poor Michael Sheen – brilliantly played as the lonely, wealthy bachelor neighbor…I knew he’d have his heart broken. Beautiful scenery in rural England. I started to sniffle through the end of the film, and while dabbing at my eyes, the flight attendant on Delta stopped me and said, “there’s no crying on my flight!” I said, “You haven’t seen this movie then.”

  2. I loved the movie, but am really surprised at the reviewer’s noting of Sturridge as the standout, as for me he was by far the weak link. As Troy, I never understood or bought his appeal — the role really needed a performer with the charisma, arrogance and sexual confidence offered by Stamp, for instance, in the 1967 adaptation. Here, he just makes Bathsheba appear foolish and complacent.

    Meanwhile, regardless, I thought Mulligan was splendid, Schoenaerts quietly smoldering, and that Sheen was the real revelation. His Boldwood is vulnerable, cringeworthy, charming and ultimately heartbreaking, and he also has the best scene in the film as he sings an impromptu duet with Bathsheba. Beautifully sung by both of them, Sheen’s subtly changing expressions as the song progresses are a master class in acting.

    But it’s a lovely film and ultimately a perfectly respectable adaptation.

  3. catherine shaw says:

    my favourite film ever the casting is superb ,the acting faultless .

  4. LaVon Leak says:

    I disagree with Scott Foundas. I thought the movie was without a doubt remarkable. I found the character Gabriel to be extremely strong and seductive. Schoenaerts was
    powerfully intriguing, with such a commanding presence that I was constantly looking
    for him. He brought everything to that role. I saw Schoenaerts in THE DROP and he was so good that I really loathed his character. I mean hated him! I was amazed at his change into Gabriel and couldn’t believe that I had fallen in love with him after despising him so deeply in THE DROP. I thought that Sturridge was well cast and was unmoved by his surface pretty boy seductive qualities. I find that the preference of Sturridge’s performance over Schoenaerts may come down to personal taste in people not necessarily in acting abilities, because Schoenaerts is absolutely incredible. I think he seems unsure of himself because Gabriel is unsure of himself, which is totally in character. He’s been rejected by a woman who is running around after other men. Hello! Any actor that can make you have feelings for a Nazi (SUITE FRANCAISE) is definitely Oscar material, accent be hanged. The cinematography, the music and the cast was wonderful. I will agree it could have been a bit longer. I didn’t want it to end.

  5. Liz says:

    I didn’t read the book and just saw the movie.

    There are two things bothering me that I am not sure I understood, hoping someone can weigh in. The first is – during the first sheep crisis – Gabriel fires a shot – is he killing the dog there? Or putting a sheep out of it’s misery?

    The second part is when Bathsheba and Gabriel are dancing at the Christmas party and he says – “Do what is right” and she excuses herself and leaves. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to interpret that as meaning she felt marrying Boldwood was right, but just didn’t want to do it? I couldn’t figure out if she asked Gabriel’s opinion more out of fishing for him to present himself as an option to her? But then a few scenes later he said they hadn’t been talking, which wouldn’t make sense if she really wanted him. I couldn’t figure out her thinking. Just wondering if someone who read it could enlighten me!

  6. jason says:

    I viewed the movie with a blank slate for a mind: as I deliberately avoided reviews beforehand so as to reach my own conclusions of the movie’s ability to tell a good story. I also have not read the book [yet].

    However, I am decently versed in history and in the rural world, so am not a complete blank slate.

    I will say that I enjoyed the movie. Without knowing what it is supposed to be about or what the book/prior movies said/did, I thought this production was a nice, smoothly paced story, with wonderful attention to detail.

    Scott, I don’t agree that the lack of an extra hour made Bathsheba’s reaction to Fanny’s fate difficult to comprehend. It seemed obvious to me that she had linked the reference to Fanny leaving the farm to marry a sergeant in the army [made in the payment scene when she fired the bailiff] to Gabriel’s hint that Troy was not an honorable man, with the fact her husband’s sergeants jacket was in their bedroom. All of this led her to a need to know if she was right in her fears about her husband, and then she pried the coffin open to find the woman she had seen her husband talking to the day before. All of this makes it very evident why Bathsheba was so distraught. And any lingering doubt was erased when her husband came in and acted how he did.

    I admit, the book may have had a lot more detail about all of this, but it is evident why she felt so betrayed and helpless. Especially when you factor in that marriage in England at that time legally made a woman’s property her husbands, and she has just given the farm and her future to this man, with divorce a very difficult [almost impossible] legal judgment to obtain.

    Helen, I haven’t read the book. I can’t say whether your comment is accurate to the books’ telling of the story. All I can do is evaluate the movie, and your comment about Bathsheba being a tenant doesn’t appear well founded from the motion pictures’ telling of the story.

    Owners of farms lose their farm when they can’t pay off on their debts. Just look at the last 100 years of US History. It seemed evident to me that she WAS the owner of the farm and chose to live as ‘first among equals’ with her tenants to set a good example of leadership. That is why she was an equal to the Boldwood, justifying her betrothal to him. If she were a simple tenant farmer she would NEVER live in a house as grand as the one shown behind the barn. It would have been one of those thatched huts that was burning when Gabriel arrived.

    You are right about the number of absentee landlords in England [and Ireland]. Yet, that doesn’t seem to apply here. In fact, there is an allusion to this when she fires the bailiff: she tells him that the farm has become run down under his stewardship. Thus, it appears evident that her uncle had been an absentee himself, and that is why she set the example she did.

    Furthermore, tenant farmers did NOT have the power to fire a bailiff. A bailiff turned a tenant farmer out when they didn’t produce. Like what happened to Gabriel earlier. Yet, Bathsheba does fire the bailiff- thus she is the owner of the landed estate- and now has to dig the farm out of arrears from years of poor production and overspending.

    Again, I have no idea if the book describes her as a tenant farmer. The only time that seemed to apply was when she lived with her aunt on the farm at the beginning.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and look forward to my horizons expanding upon reading the novel.

  7. Kay says:

    I absolutely loved Schoenaerts’ performance. Very understated, with a sense of deep passions roiling underneath a calm exterior. I am extremely thankful that Mads Mikkelsen was not cast as Gabriel, though I love him in other roles! Carey Mulligan made a fine Bathsheba, with the undercurrent throughout the film that she was slowly falling in love with Gabriel, and just needed time, but kept getting interrupted by unsuitable suitors.
    And yes,
    “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
    Their sober wishes never learnt to stray….”

  8. Doris Nell says:

    Does the critic know the title came from Thomas Grey’s” Elegy in a Country Church Yard” the which asserts that the poor peasantsl lying there had the potential for rich, vibrant, even herois lives?

  9. Helen says:

    Bathsheba’s farm is not owned by her. She is a tenant and the farm must produce a profit or
    she will lose the use of it. Most of the land in England was owned by absentee landlords .. one
    of the reasons so many English wanted to immigrate to the United States.

  10. I love the Mads, but he is waaaaay to old to be Gabriel Oak! Thank goodness he wasn’t cast in the role. He would have been more appropriate for Boldwood. I’m sorry to hear that Schoenaerts didn’t astonish in the role; I am still really looking forward to seeing him in the movie. Oak is one of my favorite literary characters, and Schoenaerts is one of my favorite actors.

  11. Can you please use more simpler words ! I mean, less pompous ligatures, less literature words and more creative metaphors and reasoning. I know how to read a book, no need to remind me this every five words that you also have read a ton of literature. I get it !

  12. tereska02 says:

    I don’t think Hardy gave the novel its title — his editor Leslie Stephen did, I believe (Virginia Woolf’s father). I don’t see how Mulligan can match Cristie or Baeza; she always seems like a very modern woman in period dress. I’ll see it, but if Gabriel isn’t done right, the movie will certainly fail.

  13. jhs39 says:

    For me the 1998 version starring Paloma Baeza as Bathsheba is the best adaptation by a wide margin but this one sounds like it will be worth a look–Carey Mulligan is actually a little old for the part but she’s a resourceful actress and I imagine she will find her way into the character.

    • I agree wholeheartedly. The 1998 version is one of my very favorite films. Baeza and Parker *are* Bathsheba and Gabriel to me, but I’m still very excited to see this adaptation.

  14. LOL says:

    Britain continues making posh, white films. How about some diversity, you Brits?

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