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.
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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.