It seemed that “Far from the Madding Crowd” was one 2015 film that came and went with practically no fanfare. That’s a shame because any movie with Carey Mulligan as its lead is worth talking about. Mulligan is one of the most emotionally earnest actresses working today which is strikingly clear in the two movies she released last year, “Suffragette” and this one.
The film is directed by Thomas Vinterberg whose last film was 2012’s stinging social indictment “The Hunt”. Here he takes the reins of this fresh, new adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic 1874 novel. It’s the third time the story has been turned into a feature film and the first since Julie Christie’s 1967 treatment. Vinterberg narrows his focus to give us a much more compact telling of Hardy’s romantic period drama.
It’s set in 19th century rural England and tells the story of a headstrong woman and the trio of men who pursue her hand in marriage. Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdeen (the inspiration for “The Hunger Games” protagonist Katniss Everdeen). She’s an independent hard worker on her Aunt’s small farm when she meets Gabriel Oak (played by Matthias Schoenaerts). He has invested his savings in a healthy patch of land for his sheep farm. He is the first to fall in love with Bathsheba.
A reversal of fortune sees Gabriel selling his farm and hunting for work while Bathsheba leaves her Aunt to claim a huge profitable farm left to her by her uncle. The large farm next to her new property is ran by a wealthy bachelor (Michael Sheen) who is quickly smitten with her. Later a third admirer enters the picture in the form of a charismatic but weaselly soldier played by Tom Sturridge.
David Nicholls handled the screenplay duties and chose to put his focus on the key relationship between Bathsheba and one of her three suitors. It’s a decision that allows for Vinterberg to tell a tighter and more economical story that gives the central romance room to breath and develop. It also allows the actors the time to fully flesh out these characters particularly Mulligan.
There is a hypnotic quality to Mulligan’s acting. She has an effortless honesty that is seen in every detail of her performances. Here it’s found in the layers of humanity lying beneath her character’s tough, confident exterior. But she also shows those slight breaks of vulnerability which never compromise the character. It simply makes her human. Mulligan is the perfect actress to convey it all to us. She can say so much through a slight grin or a subtle roll of her eyes.
Matthias Schoenaerts is also an important part of the film’s success. The Belgian heartthrob is a believable mix of farmland physicality and humble, earnest subservience. You never doubt him. Michael Sheen is also very good giving us a character that undergoes a few subtle transformations. Sturridge gives the only performance that is a bit uneven. He’s not bad but his tendencies to go big doesn’t always serve the scene well.
As you watch “Far from the Madding Crowd” you’ll have a pretty good idea how things are going turn out. But that’s okay because the movie is so well made and the performances are top notch. There is just a great flow to Vinterberg’s version of the Hardy classic and its easy to fall into the beautiful period setting and the simple charm of the story. It also offers another example of Mulligan’s magic as an actress.
VERDICT – 4 STARS