This latest screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel is a film in which the cinematography ostensibly comprises three elements; innumerable close-ups of Carey Mulligan as feisty farmer Bathsheba Everdene, sweeping panoramas of the English countryside (rolling hills, spectacular sunsets and the like) and myriad moments of men standing slack-jawed and beholden to the splendour of a woman who bewitches them the moment they lay eyes on her. She is, after all, the perfect catch. Gorgeous, gregarious and generous, Bethsheda is also strong-willed, hard working and fiercely independent as the owner of a farm that came to her in an inheritance.
It is hard to imagine anybody owning this role the way that Mulligan has here. She was born to play Bathsheba and the focus on her face – all coquettish and captivating – is a sheer delight. Mulligan makes it easy to understand why these men are so instantly smitten with her. You see, the first marriage proposal comes literally within the first 10 minutes of the film and from there it is a case of Bathsheba beguiling the men she meets and finding herself in constant deliberation about the various offers that come her way, all of which would require a compromise in her determination to remain an independent spirit. The narrative arc follows the same trajectory as pretty much every love story ever told: boy meets girl, complications arise but true love conquers all. As such, you don’t need to have read the novel to know how this story will ultimately pan out, so it is the journey to this end point that needs to be engaging and director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) presents a film that is a thoroughly enjoyable romp.
Courted by three vastly different men, it is a seductive soldier who ignites the lust within Bathsheba. Whilst searching for Fanny Robin (Juno Temple), the servant girl who he believes abandoned him at the altar, Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) literally stumbles upon Bathsheba late at night. At a subsequent rendezvous in the woods, Bathsheba is aroused by a demonstration of his sword skills and Troy seizes the opportunity to wile his way into her world. Also fighting for her affections are Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a shepherd whose loyal servitude is driven by desire and an appreciation for the opportunity afforded him when his own fortunes take a turn for the worst, and the uptight, dignified neighbour William Boldwood, a man of status whose longing verges on the obsessive, albeit ignited initially by a prank played upon him by Bathsheba. So good in Rust and Bone, Schoenaerts is terrific here as well in a completely different type of role as a very subdued and inherently decent man. For Sheen, Boldwood is a 19th century version of his TV persona Dr William Masters, all buttoned-down and unable to communicate on a truly emotional level. His offers of marriage come across more as business proposals than declarations of love and it is his desperation to impress Bathsheba that proves the catalyst for the tragedy that ensues.
Shot on location in the real Dorset, Vinterberg, cinematographer Charlotte Christensen and costume designer Janet Patterson have successfully created what one can only imagine is a somewhat authentic rendering of the era; a hard-working society toiling amidst a ruggedly beautiful backdrop. It is hard to imagine though that Bathsheba wouldn’t have encountered much stronger resistance as a woman challenging the status quo in a society in which a masculine hegemony is still very much at the forefront of the social structures. With Mulligan entrancing as Bathsheba, strong support from the likes of Schoenaerts, Sturridge and Sheen and luscious landscapes aplenty, Far from the Madding Crowd is an accomplished, if not overly ambitious, take on a literary favourite.