Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Thomas Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd is a worthwhile, surprisingly feminist adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel. The director follows up his brilliant 2012 film, The Hunt, with a story far less morbid and far more classical. Relying on stunning visual landscapes and a strong female protagonist, Madding Crowd shows the independence one woman feels in the world and her ambivalence toward men, even as many potential suitors surround her at every moment. Carey Mulligan, a fine actress that has excelled in films like Never Let Me Go and An Education, commands every moment and creates a stirringly realized figure. She’s a woman that runs her own farm and cannot stand the idea of being owned by a man through marriage; when love interests played by Matthias Schoenaerts and Michael Sheen enter the fray, she fights relentlessly to stand on her own. It’s a shockingly relevant story despite being a 141-year old adaptation, making the film sing more than other old English adaptations and strike a poignancy that rings true despite narrative question marks in its second half.
The story follows Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a headstrong, independent woman in Victorian England in 1870. After her uncle dies and gifts her a farm in rural England, she moves there in hopes of building the farm up to its acclaimed stature many years earlier. In the process, she attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a sheep farmer captivated by her deliberate perseverance; Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a handsome and reckless Sergeant that abandons his fiancée, Fanny (Juno Temple), when she mistakenly visits the wrong church on their wedding day; and William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a prosperous and mature bachelor who owns a farm next door. Bathsheba, despite not wanting to be tied to any man or have her independence squandered, cannot deny the passionate feelings she has for some of the men, particularly those that care for her deeply without ever saying so. As the relationships move in and out of Bathsheba’s life and she realizes her farm’s declining potential, her options grow limited and she must decide on what is best for her future, both romantically and financially.
The performances and Vinterberg’s direction are sublime. Mulligan in particular carries the timeless feel needed to communicate the thematic messages within the old-fashioned landscape. Her and Schoenaerts, both playing characters that are ideologically compatible but independently minded, work together marvelously on screen; the dialogue and romantic tension are palpable in every frame. David Nicholls’ adapted screenplay is full of fluffy lines that float through the air across the actors’ faces, lingering during scenes long after they are spoken. It’s quite powerful. The narrative begins to meander a bit near its conclusion, particularly as Frank is villainized and grows increasingly one-dimensional despite supposed justification for his actions. How every romance is settled, while making sense in the context of the narrative, feels decidedly simplistic in its ideas, which is striking considering how modernized the film feels emotionally. A strange complaint for a film set in 1870, I know. Another note is Charlotte Bruus Christensen, the cinematographer here who also worked on The Hunt; her work is absorbing and challenging, focusing on intimacy and grace. Far From the Madding Crowd is a departure of sorts for Vinterberg, yet that proves to be a capable challenge for him.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)