Thomas Hardy’s 19th century novel Far from the Madding Crowd is considered a classic, and yet probably not the book he’s most known for. However, his feminist icon Bathsheba Everdeen is perhaps his most intriguing creation (Tess of the d’Urbervilles is up there too) a woman of uncommon strength and independence hoping to carve her place in a man’s world. And yet the story is unabashedly a romance, as pure and hopeful as they come. It seems like an odd fit for Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, best known for gut-wrenching moral dramas like The Hunt and The Celebration, but he’s barely changed a thing from Hardy’s source material and the film is all the better for it.
With Carey Mulligan’s recent statements on the pervasive sexism in Hollywood she’s becoming a leader in the feminist movement herself, and she makes for the perfect Bathsheba. She has a unique ability to find contemporary and classic truths in her characters, connecting us to her in ways few actresses can hope. Set in Hardy’s favorite locale, his fictional Wessex of 1870s England, all windswept hills and robust farms, the story follows the many attempted loves of Bathsheba, a headstrong woman who values her independence above all else. While not as physically hearty as the other women working on the estate, her striking beauty catches the attention of stoic shepherd, Gabriel Oak. A few fleeting glances later and he’s already asking for her hand in marriage. To be perfectly honest, the choosings are pretty slim on both sides, but she still rejects his proposal stating flatly “I don’t want a husband. I’d hate to be somebody’s property.” By her own admission, Bathsheba is a woman needing to be tamed, and Gabriel’s promises of a normal, secure life aren’t going to light her fire.
When Gabriel loses everything in a freak accident involving sheep walking off a cliff (it sounds like a joke but is pretty horrific) while Bathsheba inherits a sprawling estate, the power structure flips as suddenly as their fortunes. Now she’s in charge and looking to survive in a field dominated by men, where women are expected to be quiet, subservient, and naturally give everything they own to their husbands. And there are no shortage of suitors to court Bathsheba, both of which she comes to regret for different reasons. There’s the rich yet passionless William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) who falls for Bathsheba after she sends an ill-advised Valentine’s card. More frightful is young soldier Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), a disreputable sort who steals Bathsheba’s heart with sheer charisma. The ardor she feels for him would come to blind her to his true nature, leading to tragedy and turmoil.
While many will cite the 1967 Julie Christie-led adaptation as the standard, Vinterberg’s proves superior from a technical aspect and in the veracity of its lead performance. Mulligan is a more believable Bathsheba than Christie, capturing her mercurial nature and stalwart stubbornness. She remains a likable character throughout all of her encounters with the opposite sex, whether she’s regretfully leading Boldwood along (he’s somewhat pathetic) or falling head-over-heels in lust with Troy. There are times when you simply want to shake some sense into her, (Troy is eternally punchable), but you always want to see her end up happy. And through it all the passion continues to simmer between her and Gabriel, manifesting in furtive glances, friendly barbs, and a respect that transcends the social structure dividing them.
Vinterberg glories in the beauty of the rolling hills of the countryside, aided by breath-taking cinematography by frequent collaborator Charlotte Bruus Christensen. It’s not often we get to see a female DP but for a project like this it’s a perfect fit, subtly capturing Mulligan’s beauty and fierceness. David Nicholl’s screenplay does everything the 1967 film doesn’t, namely hitting all of the story’s major beats and themes efficiently, without taking itself too seriously. This Far from the Madding Crowd isn’t another stuffy period piece; it knows how to have a little fun while exploring issues of class and gender. This is a classic story told with genuine craft, and featuring a truly great performance by Carey Mulligan. Think of it as the perfect escape from the Avengers: Age of Ultron craziness this weekend.