Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)
Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen
Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
It’s surprising how often the plots from highly-respected works of classic literature amount to little more than upmarket soap operas when committed to film. In Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s version of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd we have romantic misunderstandings, unrequited love, an unplanned pregnancy, rejected proposals of marriage, and a return from the grave – all of which are staple ingredients of the modern soap. However, as all of these misfortunes take place in mid-19th Century Wessex, they are nearly all met with impeccable politeness. Emotions are suppressed, and desires repressed, but the sense of emotional turbulence boiling away beneath a veneer of apparent propriety is never far away, and is a distant cousin to the illusion of everyday ordinariness beneath which the lurid contrivances of modern soaps are played out.
The story’s heroine is Bathsheba Everdene (Crey Mulligan – Shame), a plucky but impetuous young woman who inherits a farm shortly after turning down a wedding proposal from Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts – Bullhead), a neighbouring farmer. Misfortune sees Oak finding work as a shepherd on Bathsheba’s newly-inherited farm after losing his own, which affords him an uncomfortably close vantage point from which to witness the attempts of two very different men to woo his new employer. The wealthy Mr. Boldwood (Michael Sheen – Midnight in Paris, The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box) nurses a growing obsession with Bathsheba after identifying her as the author of an anonymous Valentine’s card she sent as a joke. He offers financial security and material comfort, but his love for her is so wretched that he makes it clear he is willing to accept her on any terms she might see fit to impose. The dashing cavalry officer Sergeant Troy (Thomas Sturridge) is a much different prospect: he offers an earthy sexual dimension to their relationship which would be entirely beyond the timid Boldwood, but is a selfish and vainglorious peacock with a weakness for gambling.
The challenge encountered by filmmakers when adapting a novel from another time is to make its characters relevant to a modern audience, and Far from the Madding Crowd’s screenwriter David Nicholls attempts to do this by injecting a dose of female empowerment into Hardy’s Victorian-era novel. However, it’s impossible for the plot to accommodate a truly strong-minded independent heroine; too many of its twists rely on a juvenile impetuosity from Bathsheba that is totally at odds with the otherwise hard-headed businesswoman persona Nicholls bestows upon her. To be honest, none of the characters are entirely deserving of our admiration: Oak, as steadfast and reliable as his name suggests, is too passive when it comes to Bathsheba, closely observing her every move like a faithful hound waiting for its master’s call. Despite this, he’s still clearly the best of a bad lot: Boldwood is a weakling, and Troy a wastrel, and because the film’s outcome is never really in doubt, the whole thing feels like a two-hour build-up to a final Big Kiss.
On the plus side, Far from the Madding Crowd boasts a strong cast. Carey Mulligan might struggle to make something out of the conflicting qualities of her character, but then any actress would, and it’s to her credit that her performance keeps Bathsheba grounded even when the screenplay doesn’t. Sheen delivers a performance of nervous hesitancy that is ideally suited to his looks – quite why he keeps being offered (and accepts) action roles remains a mystery – and Schoenaerts manages to keep the character of Oak, who is often called upon to do nothing more than look mildly broody, a likeable one. Perhaps the greatest pleasure Far from the Madding Crowd has to offer is Charlotte Bruus Christiensen’s sumptuous cinematography and the way it captures the somnolent beauty of the British countryside. Overall though, the screenplays misguided tinkering of characters embroiled in a melodramatic plot means that Far from the Madding Crowd is little more than a good-looking misfire.
(Reviewed 7th November 2015)