There is a distinct and undeniable throb of social expectation to get settled, get married, and have children as one approaches middle age. It may not be explicitly stated, but as friends find companions for life, and become parents, those who are still independent seem to become outliers to their social circle. And it’s these ideas that power Thomas Vinterberg‘s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Far From The Madding Crowd,” and that when coated with the overlapping emotions of desperation and passion, create a stirring film that delivers tragedy and triumph in equal measure.
Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is a woman ahead of her time in 1870. Orphaned when she was quite young, a generous inheritance from her late uncle has bestowed upon her his sizable estate and farm. “Too independent” she has been called, but it’s a status Bathsheba embraces. Undeniably beautiful, the virginal woman — who hasn’t even kissed a man — recognizes that the greatest danger to her self-reliance would be marriage. And yet, even she can’t stop carnal desire, and soon enough she finds three men circling for her affection: noble, rugged sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts); wealthy farmer and businessman William Boldwood (Michael Sheen); and the forward and dashing soldier Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge).
“What a luxury it is to have a choice,” observes Bathsheba’s maid Liddy (Jessica Barden), a conclusion not lost on the men vying for the woman’s attention. Each offers their own argument for why Bathsheba should take his hand. Though not rich in material things or money, Gabriel vows fierce loyalty and there is a palpable though unacknowledged reciprocation of love with Bathsheba; William, knowing his feelings far outmatch hers toward him, frames his proposal as a sound business venture; while Troy’s bold, alluring sexuality masks his less far less desirable personality as a cad and lout.
What Vinterberg’s film does so well is depict Bathsheba’s decision as a compromise between pragmatism and passion. While it’s clear from the first moment where her heart truly lies, there is also the staff she manages and the land she’s responsible for to consider in her decision, along with how her eventual marriage will be perceived socially. Screenwriter Dave Nicholls (“Starter For Ten,” “One Day”) understands how that dynamic affects Bathsheba’s interaction with all her suitors, leading to her to often say or do the wrong things for right reason, which sets off a chain reaction of events the leads to the dramatic turns of the third act.
However, even if you’re familiar with the novel, the performances by the cast will still draw you into the story, even if you know where it’s all headed. Carey Mulligan and Matthias Schoenaerts give the strong turns you would expect, but the surprise MVP is Michael Sheen. His William Boldwood is a man whose loneliness slowly turns into an internally raging mania at the fear of never finding someone to share his cavernous, almost mausoleum-like home with. “I have known disappointments before,” he heartbreakingly tells Bathsheba when she attempts to politely turn him down, but Sheen’s best moment comes without a word of dialogue at all. Initially paying no mind to Bathsheba, Vinterberg utilizes a subtle, unshowy but truly affecting dolly shot on Carey Mulligan’s face the moment when William finally sees the woman in all her beauty and potential for the first time. And the reaction shot on Michael Sheen’s face is as memorable as any of the great moments of cinematography through the film.
Indeed, Charlotte Bruus Christensen (“Life,” “The Hunt”) does some gorgeous work behind the camera, with landscapes emanating as much sensual appeal as any of the leads or developments of the plot. And the costume design by Janet Patterson (“Bright Star,” “The Piano”) provides Carey Mulligan with one terrific outfit after another, however, never in a manner that doesn’t feel organic to the character’s status or surroundings, or distracts from the film itself. And while the men’s fashions are appropriately not as showy, when Sergeant Troy shows up, the red hue of his soldier’s jacket says as much about his coiled, physical desires as any of his actions.
With production kicking off in the fall of 2013, many were surprised that “Far From The Madding Crowd” didn’t appear anywhere on the schedule last year. There were some rumblings of editing room troubles, and Vinterberg alluded to them in our interview with him. “There’s always a main challenge in adapting such a huge novel: too much material. We had 220 scenes, or something, whereas a normal script would be 130ish. So we had so much material. And we shot it all,” he said. And one gets the sense watching something the movie that Vinterberg was trying as much as possible to meet a two hour running time (it’s 119 minutes long), and it would be understandable if the director grappled with trying to contain the sprawling story to a manageable length. But this is a scenario where an extra twenty minutes or so would not only have been welcome, but would’ve allowed certain developments to breathe a little more, and land with increased impact.
But even with that concession, there is still plenty to admire in “Far From The Madding Crowd.” Handsomely mounted, this is a period drama in which both unspoken demands and stated appetites drive the emotions that simmer below the surface from the first frame. And though this doesn’t transcend what you might expect from the genre, few movies are delivered with this much craft and care. [B+]