Back in 1967, there was a film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel Far From the Madding Crowd. (Note to younger movie fans: Do not confuse the writer with the guy starring in the Mad Max sequel this week. That’s a different Tom Hardy.) John Schlesinger’s Oscar-nominated big-screen version boasted stunning visuals, a feel for the texture of life in rural 19th-century England, and a trio of great actors in the principal male roles. The new movie version of Far From the Madding Crowd can’t compete with its predecessor on any of those fronts, but it does have a trump card, and her name is Carey Mulligan.
She plays Bathsheba Everdene — and yes, this is where Suzanne Collins got the name of her heroine in The Hunger Games. Bathsheba is an unemployed governess in Dorset, England, in 1870 until an uncle dies and leaves her a sprawling, poorly tended farm near the country’s southern coast. Unusually for a woman of her time, she vows to manage her property herself and restore it to profitability, and she proves good enough at it to draw the attentions of various men: dashing but unreliable Army sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), emotionally repressed wealthy neighbor William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a sheep farmer who proposed to her before she was rich and now works for her as a lowly shepherd after his business was ruined.
This is close to an ideal showcase for Mulligan, who infuses the movie with her slim, poised presence and incandescent dimpled smile. Her delicate English-rose looks belie her inner steeliness, and she gets multiple chances to wield it here, whether she’s jumping fully dressed into a pond to help her workers bathe the sheep or politely but summarily firing a bailiff (Victor McGuire) for his incompetence. She also shows a beguiling playfulness in an early scene when she rides a horse and lies on her back so that the animal can carry her underneath some low-hanging tree branches. If all that’s not enough, she also sings the ballad “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” in a lovely, round, claret-like mezzo.
If only the men were equal to her. Sheen rises to the challenge as an awkward man carrying a pitiful torch, but Sturridge suffers mightily if you remember Terence Stamp’s panache in the same role in the 1967 film. Meanwhile, Schoenaerts looks uncomfortable as the stolid Gabriel — while his English is quite good, this ruggedly handsome Belgian actor has been much more memorable playing crazy guys in Europe (Rust and Bone) and America (The Drop). He lacks the forceful uprightness of Alan Bates from the older film.
A Danish filmmaker directing his first movie in English, Thomas Vinterberg (who made the Oscar-nominated The Hunt) eschews postcard prettiness in favor of narrative momentum while cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen and costume designer Janet Patterson give the audience some lush visuals to look at.
The film’s major problem stems from the source. Having created this fiercely independent heroine, Hardy couldn’t figure out how to wrangle her into the conventional ending that Victorian readers wanted. Early on, Bathsheba declares to her workers her intentions to take charge and says, “I intend to astonish you all” with such bright confidence that you wouldn’t dare bet against her. So it hurts, frankly, to see her reduced by the story’s end to flailing about in indecision and plaintively asking Gabriel what she should do with her love life. To be fair, Victorian novelists who were better than Hardy (Henry James and George Eliot — it’s not a long list) struggled with this, too. Fixing a Hardy novel is an intimidating prospect, but Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls don’t even seem to realize that there’s a problem, so their film fails to transcend its author’s limitations.
Most regrettably, their fidelity to the novel robs their lead actress of a much-needed moment of explosiveness, especially in the scene where Bathsheba confronts her husband over his double life. If you’ve seen Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis or Shame, you know she can explode. Gratifying as that would have been, her luminescent intelligence, quiet resolve, and physical exuberance are the lasting impressions that you get from Far From the Madding Crowd. As this film expands into Tarrant County theaters this week and next, her performance demands an audience.
Far From the Madding Crowd
Starring Carey Mulligan and Matthias Schoenaerts. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg. Written by David Nicholls, based on Thomas Hardy’s novel. Rated PG-13.