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).
The film does have a couple saving graces. Veteran performer Michael Sheen (Tron: Legacy, Frost/Nixon) is absolutely heartbreaking (in a good way) as neighboring landowner Mr. Boldwood, whose passions are unthinkingly awakened by another thoughtless act by Bathsheba, and who holds onto a love and hope as deep and desperate as Gabriel’s. Mr. Boldwood often comes across as stiff and cold–not so in Sheen’s performance. It helps that he doesn’t look so very old (only about 15 years Mulligan’s senior), but there is a truth and nuance to Sheen’s performance that further demonstrates that he is truly one of the most versatile character actors working today. Another fine performance by Jessica Barden as Bathsheba’s sassy housemaid and confidante, Liddy, leads up the secondary cast of farmhands and servants.
Truly, Thomas Hardy gave us difficult material to work with. Bleak settings and situations, unlikeable characters doing inexplicable things, and inexorable Bad Luck (Hardy could have written the disaster blockbuster about Misfortune!) gang up on the reader/viewer/hapless adaptor, making it difficult to present the material in a way that leaves you feeling glad you went to the theater. But with work and determination, it’s possible to pull the joy out of his tales, the rising tall of his downtrodden-yet-noble characters… this movie just didn’t quite get there.
Far From the Madding Crowd is in limited release in theaters now. Recommended only for diehard fans of the source material or stars.