Far from the Madding Crowd
Carey Mulligan plays a fist-pumpingly excellent heroine from 141 years ago.
Women flouting society's expectations, men unsure about how to react, and trouble springing in response: Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd may have been published 141 years ago, but the text's gender politics certainly don't seem a century old. In adapting the Victorian novel for the modern movie-going masses, The Hunt director Thomas Vinterberg and One Day writer David Nicholls clearly agree. Their condensed take on the tale may find its basis in classic literature, but it feels undated.
Given the headstrong heroine they're working with, it is far from surprising that the duo thinks that writings from times gone by will resound with audiences of today. Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is a woman who acknowledges her disdain for her name at the outset, as well as the slim likelihood of her doing the done thing. She'd be happy being a bride but not a wife, she says. She values independence over affection, as her choices continually demonstrate.
First, when assisting on her aunt's farm, Bathsheba attracts the attentions of a kindly shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), then rejects his marriage proposal. Next, after inheriting her own property, a reversal of fortune sees her acting as Gabriel's boss while coping with the competing advances of a wealthy landowner, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and a charming soldier, Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge).
A simple account of a woman trying to choose from a trio of men, this is not, though the film does focus on Bathesheba's flitting between the three. That her suitors don't quite know what to make of her gets to the heart of the story: she may be quick to tell others what she does and doesn't like, but she doesn't quite know what she really wants. Here, Far From the Madding Crowd doesn't just do what every movie today is expected to, i.e. subvert feminine stereotypes and champion a strong lady as its lead. In its portrait of a character who astonishes even herself, it does something better, showing a complex woman complete with flaws, and capable of both making mistakes and learning from them.
It helps that Mulligan — adding to her recent spate of great work in Drive, Shame, The Great Gatsby and Inside Llewyn Davis — makes for an equally fragile and fearless protagonist. Whether her hands are trembling with uncertainty or her face can't quite conceal a wry smile, she's ever the enthralling picture of complication. The actress also sets a high bar for her co-stars, though the quietly commanding Schoenaerts and the stately yet adoring Sheen are each up to the task. That Sturridge doesn't fare as well is partly a reflection of his role, playing the least sympathetic of the bunch by far.
Of course, the cast's to-ing and fro-ing is perfect fodder for Dogme co-founder Vinterberg. He might be helming his first period film, but he's already shown that he knows a thing or two about labyrinthine relationships and ambiguous motivations from his Danish movie output. His eye for the countryside and fondness for close-ups similarly get another outlet, with Far From the Madding Crowd as simultaneously pastoral and intimate as a feature can be. In fact, the blend of swelling sentiments and handsome scenery suits the director so completely, there's little wonder he has crafted an offering that's beautiful and timeless in both emotion and imagery.