A light varnish of feminism is the only revisionist note struck in this most recent adaptation of Thomas Hardy‘s venerable pastoral novel Far From the Madding Crowd. Nicely served on both sides of the camera, this is a concise and involving rendition of a resilient young woman who comes into property in Victorian England’s West Country and is courted by three suitors, all of whom have pluses and minuses.
Tales of sexually abstemious sheepherders and farmers in a Britain that no longer exists can’t be expected to get the pulses racing of today’s masses, but youngish female audiences happy to be swept up by a well-wrought romantic melodrama should form a solid core audience for this handsome Fox Searchlight release.
Opening narration from the central character of Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) about her desire to maintain her independence in a patriarchal world immediately suggests that David Nicholls‘ adaptation will assume her point of view and that her go-it-alone attitude might stem from some cultivated intellectual stance rather than the mixed opinions she holds about each of the men in her thrall. But there’s no further narration, suggesting that the lead-off commentary was added as a target-audience afterthought. One is left with the moderately daunting task of trying to figure out what this woman’s true priorities are.
When he reviewed Hardy’s breakthrough fourth novel upon its publication in England in 1874, Henry James complained that “we cannot say that we either understand or like Bathsheba. She is a young lady of the inconsequential, willful, mettlesome type,” one who “remains alternately vague and coarse and seems always artificial.”
This conundrum has faced, and arguably gotten the better of, all three previous attempts to put the novel on the screen, most notably John Schlesinger‘s lavish, well-cast but lethargic 1967 version, which even Julie Christie, in the wake of her Darling/Doctor Zhivago ascendency, couldn’t help bring to ground.
But even if Bathsheba’s attachment to the land isn’t as intense as that of, say, Scarlett O’Hara’s, she still cuts an unusual and impressive figure when, riding onto the grand but forlorn estate she’s inherited wearing a fabulous tight-fitting brown leather jacket that looks awfully St. Moritz, she seriously sets about bringing the place back to life. In this, she is ably assisted by the industrious Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a ruggedly attractive but simple shepherd who, abruptly and ill-advisedly, asks Bathsheba to marry him.
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A startled Bathsheba rejects him and rubs it in, insisting that she doesn’t want a husband but adding that, even if she did, “I’d want someone to tame me.” A firmly chastened Gabriel, whose dog done him wrong by driving all his sheep off a cliff, eventually returns to do the heavy lifting at the estate. But joining him as a rejected suitor is Bathsheba’s wealthy, stuffily serious next-door neighbor with another treelike name, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who similarly stumbles by rashly proposing marriage when he cannot possibly think she’ll agree.
This leaves the door wide open for a man who no doubt can master her, Sgt. Troy (Tom Sturridge), a dashing soldier in a trim red coat, who seduces Bathsheba with some stylish swordplay in which he flashily cuts and thrusts very near her face and lops off a lock of her hair in the bargain. (Terence Stamp more elaborately doing this remains the most remembered scene of the 1967 movie) Tamed she quickly is, enough for marriage, but happy she’s not, as Troy carouses and runs through her money while lording it over everyone at the estate to which he contributes nothing.
Hardy fleshed out the melodrama with the deliberate rhythms and rich details of rural life, the splendor and ruinous disruptions of nature and a keen sense of his characters’ abilities and limitations, often underlined by a seldom-noted beguiling wit. A streamlined film must constrict much of this, but the basics are honored here in a way that provides reasonable, if not exciting, satisfactions. After his 1998 breakthrough with The Celebration, director Thomas Vinterberg could have done more or less anything he wanted. As it is, he’s hopscotched among odd-ball projects, alternately English-language and Danish, among which this is one of the more conventional but also accomplished.
Given the challenge of solving a problem like Bathsheba, Mulligan succeeds, more than Christie did, in providing an answer. The gentlemen who orbit around her present themselves in full from the get-go; they are men of no mystery whatever. Mulligan’s Bathsheba is not coy and never insincere, but she is prudent, discloses no more than necessary and, to the great frustration of two of her suitors, cannot be sweet-talked, cajoled, negotiated or otherwise pushed into a decision against her better nature. When she finally lets caution to the wind, the price is high, even if fate is eventually kind. Henry James, nor anyone else, could hardly call this Bathsheba inconsequential.
The men solidly provide for their one-dimensional roles, with Schoenaerts in particular convincing as a salt-of-the-earth sort of great physical capacity. The production is robust and lustrous in all departments.
Production: DNA Films
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple, Jessica Barden
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Screenwriter: David Nicholls, based on the novel by Thomas Hardy
Producers: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich
Executive producer: Christine Langan
Director of photography: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Production designer: Kave Quinn
Costume designer: Janet Patterson
Editor: Claire Simpson
Music: Craig Armstrong
Casting: Nina Gold
PG-13 rating, 118 minutes