Given the number of period dramas churned out every year, it’s surprising how few are any good. Many are dull as dirt; many are bodice rippers with delusions of grandeur; and many take so many anachronistic liberties that you wonder why the filmmakers bothered at all. A new adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Victorian novel Far From the Madding Crowd seems a dismal prospect, then. Why try to top the deliciously hamstrung magic of the 1967 Julie Christie version? And how can modern Hollywood capture the glorious complexity of Bathsheba Everdeen, a 19th century literary heroine so legendarily independent that Suzanne Collins named the protagonist of The Hunger Games after her? (Granted, that’s not a selling point for everyone.)
I should have known director Thomas Vinterberg wouldn’t attach himself to anything trite. Originally known as one of the founders of Dogme 95, the avant-garde Danish film movement launched to eradicate big-studio pretensions, the director’s most acclaimed work from that era is “The Celebration”–a harrowing, deeply affecting portrait of a dysfunctional, well-to-do family. More recently he directed “The Hunt,” which boasts unusually rich visual and narrative detail as well as a preoccupation with the same themes that consume Hardy’s work: class politics, insular communities, and the grim unavoidability of fate. For a classic love story, “Far From the Madding Crowd” is awash in harsh realities only partly offset by the natural buoyancy of its protagonist.
Carey Mulligan plays Bathsheba, an unwed lass of little means and great beauty who has the audacity to refuse the hand of local farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) because she doesn’t think he can tame her. Hardy being a master puppeteer, their circumstances are soon reversed. Through a freak accident, Gabriel loses his modest farm just as she inherits a far larger one, and it’s a testament to them both that he sticks by her side while she evolves into the mistress of a universe violently unaccustomed to women in charge.
If “Far From the Madding Crowd” has a problem–and it actually has very few–it’s that Vinterberg subscribes so fully to the notion of predestination that he doesn’t bother to build out suspense. With her burgeoning gravitas and his handsome stoicism, Bathsheba and Gabriel’s union seems a foregone conclusion yet this is actually the story of a love quadrangle. Boldwood (Michael Sheen), Bathsheba’s sad-eyed, slightly stuffy neighbor, presents himself as a suitor but his airs are revealed as a core awkwardness to which she is sympathetic but not attracted. Instead, she weds the prettily sulky Troy (Tom Sturridge, perfect with his limpid eyes and weak chin) after a whirlwind romance that calls all her bluffs and robs her good sense. Writes Hardy: “When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.” Sure enough, when her girlish fancies are supplanted by the realization that her no-goodnik husband controls her domain, Bathsheba learns taming is not as fun in practice as in theory. It’s a good thing fate isn’t done with any of them just yet. Sort of.
Proving Vinterberg is more Danish than Hollywood, the book’s high-stakes passion is replaced by a stately grace that, if occasionally dramatically compromising, does make climatic moments feel earned. There’s a grit at hand here–an all-elbows feminist pragmatism–that is balanced out by Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s lush cinematography. With rolling green vistas and pastoral farming scenes, she creates a wonderfully vibrant sense of place and time that somehow highlights the universality of Bathsheba’s dilemmas. The slow-growing bond between Gabriel and Bathsheba also provides ample occasion to explore the complicated intersection of gender and economics. Lust without love is equated with a selfish impetuousness, especially in a thrilling incarnation of possibly the most famous Hardy scene of all time–a sword-and-parry seduction scene (no, that’s not a euphemism) between Troy and Bathsheba that is both terrifying and erotic.
Though very fine in 2010’s “An Education,” Mulligan can be wince-y and mealy-mouthed–one of those young female stars who’s too self-conscious to bring much backbone to her performances. But she does an admirable job as Bathsheba, whom she plays less as a fearless ingénue than as a young woman who overcomes her fears, not to mention her vanities. There’s a lot of subtlety to her performance, as there is in the barely contained grief of Sheen’s Boldwood and in the leonine patience of Schoenaerts’ Gabriel. In general, this “Far From the Madding Crowd” is to be commended most for the nuances that it never sacrifices, especially when it comes to the conflation of financial survival and marriage, an issue still painfully relevant. No character is all bad or all good here–even caddish Troy is capable of genuine human feeling when it comes to a long-lost love. Hardy is not in high favor right now nor are adaptions of his books (this might have to do with the fact that director Michael Winterbottom keeps botching them) but this movie may trigger a reappraisal of his work. It’s certainly good enough to do so.
This review was originally published in Word and Film.