In the latest adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s groundbreaking period romance, Thomas Vinterberg directs, David Nicholls adapts the novel, and Carey Mulligan is our Bathsheba.
Bathsheba Everdene’s (Mulligan) fortunes change when she inherits a relative’s manor house and farmland, and she becomes a single woman running a business and getting fully involved in back-breaking physical labour with her workforce. Her independence is threatened by three very different suitors proposing marriage – sharp, reliable and honest shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts); withdrawn, nervy but nice neighbouring landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen); and impulsive, exciting soldier Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge). Who, if any, will Bathsheba choose, and will she be able to remain her own woman?
You might think that FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD lacks the edge of Thomas Vinterberg’s previous work, but this is no tale of fluff and flattery. It can be rather harsh in its emotions and its landscapes, acknowledging the realities of these characters living in this time, and largely avoiding sun-dappled clichés. Farming is about the only industry where Bathsheba might be accepted as a working woman, even a superior to male workers at this time, since everyone, regardless of their gender, needs to be involved in the day-to-day running of farmland if a successful harvest is to be produced. There’s also particularly harrowing scene early on when everything that can go wrong for a sheep farmer does, and everyone looks cold, windswept and exhausted throughout, as anyone tending farmland on the exposed coast of the British Isles should.
Three of four of the central performances are excellent. Mulligan is a formidable Bathsheba who convinces in mucking in around the farm. Schoenaerts is a thoughtful, towering Oak and Sheen is an intense but completely and utterly uncomfortable in his own skin Boldwood, and both make for understandable, attractive prospective husbands. Oak tries to woo Bathsheba with the gift of a premature lamb and the passing on of essential skills, and their best erotic encounters come from somewhat unexpected directions – giving a flock of sheep a bath or sharpening shearing scissors together. Boldwood on the other hand plans to shower Bathsheba with gifts and affection, and shares her love of singing, joining her in a loud medley of folk songs. I won’t say Sturridge gives a bad performance as Sergeant Troy, but the way he plays it, as a more gleaming tool than the one he whips around Bathsheba in the woods, somewhat undermines her fiercely independent character. Aside from his daring, what exactly is the appeal? He’s a drunk and a gambler, he talks down to her, he tries to muscle in on her business and control her life. Surely Bathsheba hasn’t just fallen for the youngest, prettiest of the bunch? I haven’t actually seen John Schlesinger’s film from the 1960s, but I’ve heard Terence Stamp does a much better job at making Troy a loveable monster of a suitor rather than the nasty piece of eye candy Sturridge portrays.
Vinterberg is great at constructing moments of still beauty, and he brings the very best out of the somewhat forbidding Devon landscape, and takes time to dwell on the seasons changing and the wonder of life itself. The living characters and their relationships are of primary concern, but the setting comes a close second. Nicholls finds humour and vitality in what could be rather staid and quaint material, making the very most out of when Bathsheba’s suitors get in very wrong in their attempts to impress her.
I didn’t find any real sense of the passage of time in evidence here. As far as I understand it, Hardy’s story is supposed to take place over a number of years, but here it feels more like several months, with only one passing of the seasons and a single bountiful harvest. This can make Bathsheba’s relationships with her would-be husbands seem a little too spontaneous and rushed, key moments seem to flash by in seconds.
Despite being a British film directed by a Dane, someone had the bright idea of Hollywoodising the story’s locale. Hardy’s stories take place in a fictional, romanticised take on Devon, but here, straight after the unassuming title card we are bestowed with the apparently essential information that we are in “Dorset, England” which is “200 Miles Outside London”. This astoundingly clunky introduction made me instinctively want to dislike the film that followed, but the level of craft, performance and the sheer heady romance and beauty of the thing swept me helplessly along nonetheless. SSP
The film boasts a fiery and mercurial performance from Mulligan but it is a very long way removed from the pared down intensity of Vinterberg’s Dogme roots. The director is surprisingly conventional in his approach to his material. He is very fond of crepuscular lighting and of beautifully composed shots of the farm workers in the fields.