Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce
Anyone familiar with Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd knows that the story begins when an impetuous young sheepdog accidentally herds his flock over a cliff, killing them all… and then things rather go downhill (ahem) from there. That’s Thomas Hardy, after all. But Far From the Madding Crowd is widely considered one of Hardy’s “happier” stories, a happy-ending (except for the sheep) romance about another impetuous youngster, farm heiress Bathsheba Everdene, and her stubborn attempts to hang on to her independence, despite the attentions of three (three!) suitors. It all takes place in the bucolic English countryside, at the height of the Victorian era, with Social Consequences and Brooding Heroes, Headstrong Heroines, Disastrous Misunderstandings, Crimes of Passion, and Anonymous Love Letters. What’s not to love?
Well, in Thomas Vinterberg’s new adaptation of the story, pretty much everything. Okay, to be fair–there is actually a lot not to love about the novel. Heroine Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan, Doctor Who “Blink”, Never Let Me Go, The Great Gatsby), for one; she is at times thoughtless, clueless, senselessly cruel, and relentlessly bullheaded. But Hardy also meant her to be sympathetic and inspiring, driving forward in a man’s world that thinks little of a woman’s independence. Along the way, she wins the affections of no fewer than three men–men who see her for much more than her valuable land. But the latest film version brings none of Bathsheba’s passion, conviction, and nuance to screen, relying only on Mulligan’s befuddlement and tousled tresses, and a confused wardrobe (by designer Janet Patterson) that looks like clothing from a Soviet propaganda poster. She’s a better actor, and we’ve seen it.
Somewhere along the way, the love quadrangle of the tale gets muddled, and one can’t quite figure out how itinerant soldier Frank Troy (Thomas Sturridge, The Hollow Crown, Pirate Radio) fits in–let alone manages what devoted shepherd Gabriel Oak (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, from the upcoming Lewis & Clark) has continually failed at: securing Bathsheba’s hand in marriage. But by that time, the only thing we’re sure of is that Bathsheba has poor judgement… so we just sort of go with it. Perhaps because we’re still hanging on for gorgeous glimpses of the English countryside (which never arrive).