Victorian drama can often seem foreign in today’s modern landscape. This disconnect can be compounded by the pastoral setting of Far from the Madding Crowd, based on the 1874 novel by Thomas Hardy. And yet when Hardy titled his novel Far from the Madding Crowd, it was almost certainly meant to point out the irony of the perception that those in the country led simple and serene lives. Director Thomas Vinterberg’s 2015 adaptation loses some, but not all, of that satiric bite, exhibiting flashes of modernity in this Victorian melodrama.
Carey Mulligan (An Education) stars as Bathsheba Everdene, a young and fiercely independent woman who works on her aunt’s farm after her parents pass away. There she meets Gabriel Oak (Matthais Schoenaerts, Rust and Bone), a simple shepherd who falls for Bathsheba and offers her his clumsy hand in marriage, which she quickly denies, stating that she’s too independent and he’d be incapable of taming her. Mulligan’s Bathsheba is in many ways a profoundly modern woman, a perception that Vinterberg plays up to great effect, yet her notions of romance remain entrenched in 19th century values. The way her character’s emotional dissonance reads to a modern audience is certainly different than the Victorian text intended, but the film still manages to use it to great effect.
Oak’s and Everdene’s fortunes diverge sharply in what might be the film’s most truly modern aspect. Just as Bathsheba inherits a large farm from her uncle, and with it the accoutrements of the upper class, Gabriel finds himself in ruins when an inexperienced sheep dog drives his herd over a cliff. More than a century after the text was written, and stories of inherited fortunes and fiscal cliffs (albeit less literal) are still emblazoned across our headlines. If great works of art are meant to be universal, than Far from the Madding Crowd is great in at least one regard. It’s image of finance doesn’t feel archaic, it feels timely.
While Bathsheba’s exploits returning her uncle’s farm to its former glory are of some interest, the films primary focus is her relationship to the three men who revolve around her. Just as fate brings her and Gabriel back together, leading him to accept a job at her farm, Bathsheba catches the eye of the strange, middle-aged bachelor William Boldwood (Michael Sheen, Frost/Nixon) who runs the farm adjacent to hers. This meeting is followed quickly by a marriage proposal, one that she again denies, instead falling for the charms of the young Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge, On the Road), who exploits her sexual naïveté with demonstrations of overtly phallic swordplay and other brash romantics.
The role of the young woman surrounded by suitors is a familiar, even nauseating one, and Far from the Madding Crowd would likely fall prey to stale formula were it not for the film’s primary asset: Carey Mulligan. Mulligan brings nuance and humanity to Bathsheba, creating a woman who is at once of the time and profoundly modern. Bathsheba is a woman at war with herself. She juggles not only her desires and responsibility for three men, but also her personal desire to succeed on her own merits in a world that expects her to play the role of a wife. It’s a difficult role, one where actions are often contradictory and conflicts are often deeply internal. Mulligan captures these profound complexities in a performance that’s sure to be buzzed about come awards season.
While Mulligan’s performance is a continual delight, those of her suitors are something of a mixed bag. Schoenaerts never feels entirely comfortable in Gabriel’s skin, lapsing in and out of his British accent and allowing his already isolated character to fade into the background. Michael Sheen’s offers up a strong performance for Boldwood, embodying a tragically lonely man whose time has slipped through his fingers. It’s a nuanced performance that feels oddly peripheral and is overshadowed by Tom Sturridge’s loud and brash Sergeant Troy. Troy’s performance is lively and venomous, but his screen time has been cut to the point that he’s forced to oscillate between cartoonish emotional extremes, filling the role of lover and villain in the span of minutes.
Far from the Madding Crowd is a rare film with pacing issues from being too short. The film runs exactly two hours, a move that feels studio mandated rather than artistically thought out. In comparison, John Schlesinger’s 1967 version ran nearly three hours. Thomas Hardy’s novel follows the romances of five characters told through an omniscient narrator. It’s difficult to compress that kind of epic scale into a three-hour film, much less a two-hour one. The cuts Vinterberg makes feel haphazard and have profound consequences. Perhaps most tragically, they turn the central role of Fanny Robin (Juno Temple, Dark Knight Rises), into a cameo appearance. A great film leaves you wishing you could spend more time with it characters; wishing you had a chance to get to know them in the first place is less desirable.
Technical credits are solid all around, even when laid on a bit thick. Craig Armstrong’s score swells in all the right places and Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography turns back the clock on the British countryside to create a compelling Victorian vision. The film occasionally falls prey to its own sense of romance; a shot of Bathsheba riding a horse towards a rainbow comes to mind. It’s easy to forget that Vinterberg’s origins are rooted in the Dogma 95 movement, where films sacrificed technological proficiency for artistic control.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Far from the Madding Crowd is sure to please fans of Victorian melodrama and those looking for something to fill the gap between seasons of Downton Abbey. It’s a beautifully crafted film with strong performances that can’t quite shine through the gloom of its pacing concerns. Still, Carey Mulligan is undeniably captivating as Bathsheba in a performance that may merit a look on its strengths alone.