Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s take on Far From the Madding Crowd, the 19th century classic by Thomas Hardy, is a far cry from his previous film – tense small-town drama The Hunt. This version, following John Schlesinger’s famous 1967 adaptation starring Julie Christie, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch, melds beautiful landscapes, high drama, and the realities of farming life. From this emerges a visual feast, backed by elegant performances from its four leads.
Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is a well-educated young woman with an independent mind, living and working on her impoverished aunt’s land. Inheriting a farm from another relative, she becomes the manager of a sizeable enterprise and is courted by three men: tranquil shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the impetuous Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge), and her austere neighbour Mr Boldwood (Michael Sheen). She must make a choice – one that will allow her to preserve her cherished freedom.
While Bathsheba reveals herself skilled at steering a large farm back to profitability, her personal decisions aren’t as wise. Mulligan creates a character who is refreshingly confident and candid about her choices. Her Bathsheba is conscious of her limitations, but refuses any judgement – they are hers to live by, and hers alone. Mulligan meanwhile conveys the vulnerability of a woman receptive to charm and with a touch of vanity. Her performance is remarkably realistic. Throughout the film’s intricate plot, the three suitors, whether successful or not, seem interlinked with Bathsheba’s fate, haunting her every move. Schoenaerts’ quiet Gabriel Oak is the most expressive of the three – he makes other characters, and the audience, wholly at ease with his long silences and short dialogue. While observing Bathsheba, he reveals his character’s emotions with simple, longing glances.
Sheen and Sturridge also shine in their roles. Sheen carries Boldwood from a dignified figure to a man who can barely conceal his emotional collapse, while Sturridge portrays Troy as detestable, charming, and vain, from the curl of his lip to his brusque movements.
The novel has a slow, intricate plot – its numerous twists and turns are buffered by lyrical depictions of the Wessex landscape and country life. This adaptation, scripted by David Nicholls, is not afforded this luxury. As a result of having to pack so many events into short screen time, the story feels rushed. It is also unfortunate that it never explores the full roots of Sargent Troy’s behaviour, and as such, his actions at times will appear impromptu to those who have not read the novel.
Thomas Hardy’s adoration of nature, however, does emerge from Vinterberg’s direction – the film’s on-site locations are breath-taking, whether forests, fields, or cliffs overlooking the sea. All are bathed in a nostalgic light that emphasises the brightness of its colours.
Far From the Madding Crowd is ultimately a great adaptation, bringing together the drama of Hardy’s work with the rhythms of farming life. With a well-acted ensemble, it’s a pity that its plot is not better paced.
The DVD’s bonus features are somewhat slim – a series of short videos on the film’s principal characters, costuming, the adaptation from the novel, and Thomas Vinterberg himself. The interview footage is at times reused across several of these.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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