'Far from the Madding Crowd'
In a weekend when a movie like ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ is set to premiere, that doesn’t leave much room for competition. The superhero spectacle will slay the popcorn crowd, so any other movie that dares to open against it must fall into the category of counter-programming. And so, this week sees the release of a handsome and somewhat harsh period piece adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s (the author, not ‘Mad Max’ star) ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’. Thankfully, it’s a strong little lamb worth sending out to the box office slaughter.
Carey Mulligan stars as Bathsheba Everdene (no relation to Katniss, presumably), a Victorian era proto-feminist who lives a simple life on a farm and has no desire to be owned by a man. Matthias Schoenaerts plays Gabriel Oak, a strong farmer who asks Everdene to marry him, but she refuses. Ironic reversal of fortune soon sees Bathsheba inherit a farm in the city, while Gabriel loses his flock and is reduced to being her employee. They share longing glances as Bathsheba matures into a strong independent woman.
She also soon finds herself fighting off the advances of Michael Sheen’s William Boldwood, a man whose vast wealth is matched only by his vast repression. She has no interest, but soon catches the eye of the wild and dickish Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge). He’s a man who couldn’t be more wrong for her, but his dashing sexiness makes that difficult for the typically headstrong Bathsheba to sort out. Cruel fate and bad decisions are the rule of the day and things get sticky and tricky rather quickly.
‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ was previously adapted into a luxuriously paced and postcard pretty film in 1967 by John Schleshinger. That movie is pretty much impossible to top in its way, so Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (‘The Celebration’, ‘The Hunt’) wisely doesn’t try. Though not opposed to the occasional moment of pretty dress flaunting or the odd shot of a countryside sunset complete with lens flare, Vinterberg’s approach is far more direct and character-driven.
In the past, the filmmaker has been known for his cynical and nasty depictions of ugly humanity, and that overlying interest proves to be a strong bedfellow with Hardy’s classic novel here. The movie is fairly direct and succinct in its plotting, primarily to focus on the cruel twists of fate and pigheaded behavior that define the story. As strong and admirable as Bathsheba might be as a woman in the world, her sense of relationships is a disaster. She seems determined to distrust men who would make appropriate partnerships and lets her repressed emotions loose on the wrong man. It’s a tragic story, yet has a perverse sense of logic that fits into Vinterberg’s distinct brand of cynicism rather nicely.
Mulligan is ideally cast in the role, which takes advantage of her unique screen presence. She has a face that seems at once youthful and wizened, and Vinterberg’s cameras deliberately capture both sides. It’s one of her more charming performances, and yet a character that’s also endearingly flawed. She’s wonderful. Of her suitors, only Michael Sheen is Mulligan’s match as an actor. In a way, that works to the film’s advantage, since his character is so uptight that he could easily disappear into the ornate backgrounds of his scenes without an actor of Sheen’s poised and controlled stature.
Sturridge is an amusing little prick as the Sergeant, which is a clever (if one-note) take on the character because it ensures that the audience never falls for his charms and can appreciate the irony of the partnership. Struggling slightly with a British accent, Schoenaerts is likely the weakest link in the main cast. However, even that perversely works to the movie’s advantage as well. His performance is so dull that it’s easy to buy that Bathsheba would ignore him, even if that wasn’t entirely a deliberate decision by the filmmakers.
Beyond all of the somewhat ugly character dynamics and cynical statements, Vinterberg crafts a beautiful little movie. The sets and costumes are never less than stunning, while all the outdoor sequences seem to have been shot at just the right time of day for the natural night to reflect the mood of the scene. The ornate beauty of the movie works well in ironic contrast to the bitter little pill of a story.
Vinterberg has delivered a romantic costume drama for viewers who don’t typically like romantic costume dramas, and there’s something to be said for that achievement. Ultimately, it’s a minor and clever little movie. ‘Far from the Madding Crowd ‘won’t overrule the classic status of the 1967 adaptation, nor will knock audiences to the ground in a state of catatonic adoring appreciation. However, it will absolutely offer a worthy cinematic alternative for viewers who have no interest in seeing a single explosion or superpower on the big screen this weekend.