Kudos to director Thomas Vinterberg, screenwriter David Nicholls and star Carey Mulligan for an absolutely smashing adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel Far From the Madding Crowd. It’s kind of under the radar, and probably will be long forgotten at awards season, but it shouldn’t be.
I read the book last year, and the film, while making necessary cuts, is almost entirely faithful, so I won’t go over the plot in detail. Suffice it to say that the first time we see Batsheba Everdene (Mulligan) she is wearing pants, a pretty bold thing to do in 1870, even is she is riding a horse. She is espied by neighboring farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), who almost immediately proposes marriage. She declines, but after he loses his sheep in a freak accident, she takes him on as a shepherd after she inherits her uncle’s farm. Because they have changed places in station, it is unthinkable that they can marry.
She is then pursued by another rich neighbor, Mr. Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who is both overly romantic and just a bit creepy. He promises her he will always protect her, a statement that will lead to tragedy.
Mulligan ends up marrying for passion, a callow soldier, Sgt. Troy (Tom Sturridge). Everyone, including the audience, can see this a bad idea, especially since we know he meant to marry Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple), who used to work on Mulligan’s farm. Immediately after marrying Mulligan, he starts throwing his weight around and gambling away her money, which is especially hard to watch considering she is an immensely competent farmer.
So we have a love quadrangle here–with Oak, Boldwood, and Troy as the men in Mulligan’s life. I find it interesting that Hardy, as does the film, makes passion an evil. Oak and Boldwood both love her, but with Boldwood especially there is no desire. He tells her that he doesn’t mind. His love for her is so complete and so unyielding that one can understand why she would shy away.
The film, like the book, is also funny, especially in the early going. Mulligan’s performance is so damn good that she can make you want to laugh and cry at the same time. She has a way of sneaking quick smiles, such as when Boldwood, in one of his proposals, promises her a piano. She can’t but smile. He says, “Do I amuse you?” and in a sense he does, because when Oak proposed he also promised her a piano. But she assures him no, “I already have a piano.”
Bathsheba Everdene was one of the first feminist heroes, a woman who truly does not need a husband and says so on many occasions. The film, while not a manifesto, does show that even strong-willed independent women make mistakes in love. But the happy ending, which for Hardy was a rarity, gave me a nice golden glow as I walked out of the theater. As the feminist saying used to, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” but every once in a while a fish might like to ride a bicycle.
In addition to Mulligan, Schoennaerts and Sheen are very good. Schoennaerts we can expect big things of. As Troy, Sturridge is quite the melodramatic villain, but his dewy eyes are quite effective in scenes in which he both professes his love for Mulligan and his disdain. There’s a scene in a chapel that is heart-wrenching, when he tells her what he really thinks of her.
This is sure to be one of my favorite films of the year.
My grade for Far From the Madding Crowd: A.