Having not read Thomas Hardy’s novel Far From the Madding Crowd, it’s rather fascinating to watch the way that Thomas Vinterberg’s film adaptation comes across as rather bleak very the very get-go. For a film whose adverts and posters make it out to look like a grandiose romance, it’s more of a a down-to-earth tale of a woman named Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) trying to sustain the farm she has inherited from her uncle, while navigating the romantic interests of the men that surround her.
Bathsheba’s independence is established in no time at all, shooting down the first man who attempts to marry her; the young (and incredibly handsome) shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). In a twist of fates, just as Bathsheba gains her own farm, Oak loses his own after a dreadful accident and ends up working under her. This, of course, is the perfect set-up for a strange little romance, but Hardy involves others in her life. On one side is the neighbor unaccustomed to the world of courting a woman and, on the other, a former soldier whose charm doesn’t entirely detract from his overwhelming awfulness.
And – be it due to Hardy’s original tale or the way David Nicholls offers up a script that’s easily his most succinct to date – there isn’t a single moment in time that Bathsheba, or the audience for that matter, seems wholly convinced that any of these men are quite right for her. Her independence is one of her most fascinating features, with women in period narratives not often being offered the luxury of maintaining such a role of power without the help of a man. The film very clearly explores the sexism inherent in the period multiple times though, with Bathsheba being placed in multiple situations in which a man dismisses her based on gender, but there isn’t a moment where Vinterberg makes one feel that she’s not a unique woman in the way she handles everything thrown her way.
As fascinated by this woman’s self-sufficient nature as Far From the Madding Crowd seems though, there’s no denying that Vinterberg is a bit of a romantic when it comes down to it. As bleak – though admittedly predictable – as Hardy’s narrative can be sometimes, it’s far from the sort of grueling journeys that we’ve seen the filmmaker tackle before. There’s always the underlying feeling of a chance at true happiness – potentially through love – for the characters in the story, and in great part it’s because of all the close-ups of fleeting glances and softly lit beauty that fills the film. It doesn’t go for the verité grittiness of something like Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, but rather indulges in the romanticism of it all; gorgeous and practical costuming, lighting that almost always seems natural, and sets that always seem lived-in rather than solely for show.
But Madding Crowd would be nothing if not for its two leads, as a lack of chemistry between the two would have made for a rather boring film that simply placed Bathsheba through trials and tribulations for no good reason. This isn’t to say that both Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge don’t play their roles perfectly, but when the potential love-birds are on screen, it’s impossible to look anywhere else (as intended). They play off each other beautifully, and even the sappiest of lines (there’s plenty) come across as endearing because of their delivery and presentation. Far From the Madding Crowd works because Mulligan and Schoenaerts make one believe in the will-they-or-won’t-they narrative that Hardy so pleasantly pushes onto the audience time and time again. And because Thomas Vinterberg seems to believe in it, never betraying the characters he’s so lovingly adapting to screen, the viewer does too, resulting in a period piece more compelling than it has any right to be.
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg; written by David Nicholls; adapted from the novel by Thomas Hardy; starring Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, and Juno Temple; 119 minutes.