REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
The latest adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” is a worthy effort to capture the author’s fascination with class structure, social mores, and the role of destiny in rural Victorian England.
Hardy explored many of the same issues and displayed the same intricate plotting as his fellow 19th century writer, Charles Dickens. However, Dickens was wont to place his works in the bustling metropolis of London. By contrast, Hardy preferred a countryside locale for his novels.
With “Far From the Madding Crowd,” Hardy introduced Wessex. The anachronistic term corresponds roughly to the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom that existed in Arthurian times in southwest and south central England. The film was shot in Dorset, which would have been part of that ancient realm. The author returned to the provincial setting of Wessex in his subsequent novels.
“Far From the Madding Crowd” represented a turning point in Hardy’s literary career. On the advice of his friend and fellow novelist, George Elliot, to avoid controversy, Hardy did not even publish his first book. His next two novels were published anonymously. His fourth work, “A Pair of Blue Eyes,” was serialized under his name in “Tinsley’s Magazine.” It is believed that the term, “cliffhanger,” was first used in conjunction with the work. One of its installments ends with a character literally dangling off the edge of a precipice. It was not until his fifth novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd,” in 1874, that Hardy achieved sufficient commercial success to leave his job with an architectural firm and devote himself to writing.
The film’s protagonist, Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), is a headstrong, convention defying woman. Bathsheba had been an orphan, who grew up amidst genteel poverty. She is well-educated, but lacking in material wealth. In an early scene, we see Bathsheba, engaged in the mundane task of picking potatoes on her aunt’s farm.
One day, Bathsheba catches the eye of Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a neighboring shepherd with a flock of considerable size. He is a fine figure of a man with a brawny physique and a laconic manner. Although Gabriel has exchanged only a few words with Bathsheba, it doesn’t deter him from abruptly proposing to her. Bathsheba spurns his overture, asserting that she needs a husband, who could tame her. Bathsheba insists that Gabriel would never be able to do so. Gabriel reconciles himself to this rejection, but continues to long for Bathsheba.
Unexpectedly, Bathsheba inherits a sprawling estate from a relative. She must immediately depart to assume its management. Upon arrival, Bathsheba assembles her farm workers. She warns them, “Don’t anyone suppose that because I’m a woman, I don’t understand the difference between bad goings-on and good.” Bathsheba described her intense work ethic, concluding, “I shall astonish you all.” Her rhetoric aside, running the estate will be a daunting challenge. Will Bathsheba be up to it?
Meanwhile, one night, as Gabriel is sound asleep, his flock becomes agitated by a barking dog. They break down the corral that had enclosed them. The sheep run towards a cliff, then go careening over its edge, lemming like, to their deaths. It is a stunning scene that captures the fickleness and unpredictability of fate. Just as Bathsheba has become a member of the landowning class, Gabriel loses his entire flock and with it his status.
Next, Bathsheba piques the interest of William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a gentleman farmer, who owns a neighboring estate. The wealthy widower is quite handsome. However, he is already well into middle age. Bathsheba capriciously feigns an interest in him. She sends him an insincere Valentine’s Day card. It suggests romantic feelings that Bathsheba does not actually harbor. Although William has never courted Bathsheba, the epistolary overture prompts the painfully shy man to propose to her. Predictably, Bathsheba spurns yet another suitor.
Then, Bathsheba meets Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a dashing cavalry officer in the Queen’s army. She is seemingly powerless to resist him. However, Frank harbors a deep, dark secret. He is already in love with another woman, Fanny Robin (Juno Temple). The two had planned to marry. However, on the day of the ceremony, due to a mix up, Fanny arrived at the wrong church. Undaunted by his antecedent emotional entanglement, the ne’er-do-well proves to be a gold-digger. He sweeps Bathsheba off her feet and she ill-advisedly succumbs to the rogue’s marriage proposal.
The prior 1967 adaptation of the novel was directed by John Schlesinger (“Midnight Cowboy,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday”). It starred Julie Christie in their third cinematic collaboration together. With a radiant Christie in the lead, it was understandable that a litany of men (portrayed by Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Terrence Stamp) would vie for her hand. Although Mulligan is a skilled thespian, unlike Christie, she is not a world class beauty. Accordingly, some may struggle with the notion that her character managed to inspire so much ardor.
The real stand out here is Matthias Schoenaerts as an earnest shepherd. The Belgian born actor has already done impressive turns in “Rust and Bone” and “The Drop.” In a role with circumscribed dialogue, he smolders with unspoken emotional intensity.
Previously, screenwriter, David Nicholls, had adapted his own novel, “Starter for Ten,” Blake Morrison’s “And When Did You Last See Your Father?,” and a pared down, one hour version of “Much Ado about Nothing” for an episode of the BBC’s “ShakespeaRE-told.” Nicholls had also translated Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Ubervilles” into a four episode, eight hour mini-series, for the BBC. Here, he is constrained by the film’s truncated running time, which is nearly an hour sorter that the Schlesinger version. In the process of adumbration, much of the narrative and character complexity of Hardy’s novel is lost. Perhaps, the tome would have been better served by the more generous allocation of time afforded by the BBC to “Tess of the D’Ubervilles.” Nevertheless, Nicholls’ screenplay for “Far From the Madding Crowd,” is well-polished and captures the essence, if not every nuance, of the source novel.
The film’s Danish director, Thomas Vinterberg (“The Celebration,” “The Hunt”), had promised that his version would be, “raw and revolutionary.” The film falls short of Vitterberg’s vaunted claims. Nevertheless, the latest adaptation of “Far From the Madding Crowd” is a dramatically compelling and beautifully mounted film.
Opens on Friday, May 8 at the Ritz 5 and the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. PG-13 (for some sexuality and violence)118 minutes. Fox Searchlight
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.