A pleasing adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Victorian drama
While the new film version of Far From the Madding Crowd struggles a bit with key elements of that classic Thomas Hardy novel, it distinguishes itself often enough to rate special attention among the many adaptations of Hardy for film and TV.
Director Thomas Vinterberg’s Madding Crowd succeeds richly as social drama and period piece. The setting is 19th century England, with commoners and gentry intermingling in the rugged rural landscapes that meant so much to Hardy. Vinterberg and company make all that a living part of the human dramas that unfold, and the episodes of spectacular dramatic action—a barnyard fire, a catastrophic panic among a herd of sheep, recurring bits of pursuit on horseback, an emergency in a thunderstorm—are rendered forth with brisk, evocative intensity.
The heart of the matter, however, is the strange, convoluted romantic drama that plays out among the main characters—a fiercely independent heiress and her three suitors (a shepherd, a landowner and a young cavalry officer). The orphaned Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is surprised to inherit her uncle’s farm, but she takes charge immediately. She has turned down the abrupt marriage proposal of an enterprising shepherd named Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), but she soon puts him in charge of her work crew.
Meanwhile, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), the neighboring landowner, proposes marriage (and business partnership). Bathsheba is reluctant to accept, but delays a final decision. And then the swaggering Sgt. Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), still reeling from an ill-starred courtship of a runaway farm maid (Juno Temple), bedazzles her and wins her hand. Nevertheless, the characters’ various triangular attachments continue to multiply, and further dramatic clashes are in the offing.
The basic power of Hardy’s story comes through rather well, despite some unevenness in performances and casting. Schoenaerts ably fills the bill as the sturdy, quietly heroic shepherd, and Sheen is brilliant in conveying the paradoxes of Boldwood’s clumsy but relentless passions. Sgt. Troy might be the most complicatedly melodramatic character in the bunch, but David Nicholls’ script and Sturridge’s performance seem bent on reducing Troy to cliché status.
At times, Mulligan seems miscast. There’s something sweet and innocent in her smile that just doesn’t match up with Bathsheba’s presumed mixtures of boldness and allure. Still, she succeeds in delivering a credible (and creditable) version of the character, and never really descends into Bathsheba-lite.