Published in 1874, Thomas Hardy’s Victorian-era novel “Far From the Madding Crowd” is hardly unique material for the screen. It was first adapted in 1915, revisited in John Schleinger’s 1967 version, uprooted to modern times in Stephen Frears’ “Tamara Drewe,” and transformed into a “Masterpiece Theater” miniseries in 1998. Thomas Vinterberg’s gorgeous treatment of the story, which tracks individualistic farm owner Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) as she runs her property and evades the advances of various suitors, arrives in theaters this week treading no fresh ground.
At the same time, the movie rejuvenates the material with a restrained eye for the details of the story — the relationships between a small cast of passionate characters — that frees it from the constraints of its era. With its gorgeously photographed backdrop of the British countryside’s rolling hills, and a cast of movie stars that includes not only Mulligan but also the beefy Mattias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen and Juno Temple, Vinterberg’s treatment of the material hardly feels microbudgeted. But like Vinterberg’s great Dogme ’95 drama “The Celebration,” it crafts a compelling story out of thorny encounters that render outrageous circumstances in intriguingly familiar terms.
Opening in 1870, “Far From the Madding Crowd” — falling in line with Thomas Gray poem from which it derives its title — uses the insular setting of remote farm land to draw out relationships between the characters. At its root is Bathsheba’s ongoing challenges as she copes with various attempts by men of varying temperaments, from different levels of society, to pursue her affections. It starts with a genial sheepherder (Schoenaerts) whom she initially deems beneath her standards, gets more complicated with the arrival of a debonair but ethically dubious soldier (Tom Sturridge) who temporarily wins her over with his swordsmanship, and finally reaches a full state of confusion with the offer of gentle companionship from a middle-aged bachelor (Sheen).
Along the way, we’re treated to a makeout session in the woods, an innuendo-laden tutorial on knife-sharpening and more than one instance of temper tantrums. There are moments when “Far From the Madding Crowd” approaches soap opera territory, but Vinterberg’s committed ensemble and focus on the realistic cadences of conversation make it possible to get swept up in the natural flow of the proceedings rather than the social constructs of the era that dictate them. Bathsheba’s conundrums might not seem entirely out of place in the universe of bourgeois anxieties created by Whit Stillman.
Vinterberg’s focused approach to universalizing the story, which mainly pivots on closeups to convey the conflicting emotions in play, puts this version in league with other recent attempts to make the past more relatable. The same attempt to liberate the period drama from subservience to the past can be found in the recent Tribeca Film Festival premiere “Men Go to Battle.” Zachary Treitz’s intentionally meandering drama takes place across the pond a decade earlier, against the backdrop of the Civil War, in 1860 Kentucky.
Though the director resourcefully incorporates Civil War reenactments to hint at a broader scale just outside the frame, “Men Go to Battle” mainly focuses on the tension between a pair of brothers on another isolated farm land, this one far less tamed. When they both end up jockeying for the affections of the same woman, the more unkempt of the pair wanders off to the battlefield. This restrained conundrum keeps the focus on sibling rivalry and arrested development, lasting themes that never seem remote or stately despite the distant setting.
Once again, appeal of the story rests in an intimacy with a handful of characters seemingly cut off from the grander developments of the outside world. Treitz also develops his story’s potent themes around telling closeups that hint at the unruly emotions in place, most effectively as Henry faces the profound fear of seeing action on the battlefield and reacts with a series of questionable decisions that he never verbalizes; they remain a secret he maintains only with the audience. Like Bathsheba’s conundrum in “Far From the Madding Crowd,” the period setting is just a starting point for exploring timeless scenarios.
Yet both movies pale in comparison to the extent to which “Far From Men,” also opening this week, dramatizes its period setting by intensifying the psychological processes in play. Director David Oelhoffen’s refashioning of Albert Camus’ “The Guest” takes place in 1960 and involves racial and sociological tensions involving the French-Algerian war, but with its desert setting and a plot that mainly involves the travails of two characters traversing a barren landscape, could easily unfold amidst the turmoil of war-torn environments today. Viggo Mortensen excels as a good-natured retired soldier eager to spend his days teaching literacy to Algerian students at a remote outpost; that tranquility is upended when he’s forced to escort an arrested Algerian prisoner to a neighboring town, where he’s bound to be put to death.
As the two men form a curious bond over the course of their journey, and their allegiances grow more complex, “Far From Men” complicates the historical framework through which past incursions are so often simplified. Expertly assembled to draw out the suspense of danger lurking around each vacant hill, and enhanced by Nick Cave’s moody score, the movie creates a world of paradoxical sentiments: immediate decision-making pitted against the immovable forces of ideology and moral codes. At the end of the day, it involves the plight of two men forced to reckon with battle lines they had nothing to do with in the first place — and fighting to come up with a strategy to draw their own. That’s not the stuff of a period drama; that’s just life.