FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (2015)
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Fox Searchlight, 129 minutes, PG-13.
* * *
Although it's literary blasphemy to admit, I have always preferred Thomas Hardy to Charles Dickens. Dickens was funnier and his stories contained more action, but I like Hardy better for the complex interior lives of his characters, and the fact that his women were more than wallpaper. Hardy's women are independent spirits full of resolve and spunk. Think of Tess Darbeyfield, Sue Bridehead (Jude the Obscure), or Eustacia Vye (Return of the Native). And how many Victorian literary heroines can compare with Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd? Even her name was scandalous in Hardy's time. Bathsheba was an unlikely name for a 19th century daughter given that her ancient counterpart was the Hittite woman with whom King David committed adultery and impregnated (with Solomon). David also engineered her soldier husband's death in battle when he couldn't convince him to have sex with Bathsheba. It took moxie to name a sympathetic character Bathsheba.
Hardy played with the Biblical story. A soldier, temptation, lust, and wisdom factor into Far from the Madding Crowd, but not the ways they were recounted in the Old Testament. Biblical authorities differ on whether Bathsheba was willingly or unwillingly seduced by King David, but Bathsheba Everdene is neither temptress nor victim. Though men desire her, she longs for independence. She is intelligent, strong-willed, high-spirited, and stubborn–traits that are both blessings and curses. She is, for example, often too clever and acts impulsively on the presumption that others will know her mind as well as she.
This foregrounding is essential for evaluating the latest film version of Far from the Madding Crowd. This is the fourth full-length motion picture of Hardy's novel and it shares the strengths and shortcomings of its predecessors. Bathsheba is such an intriguing personality that one can see why directors are drawn to it. The 1967 British production with Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Terence Stamp is the most famous attempt, though the BBC's 1998 four-part series (which aired in the US on Masterpiece Theater) is probably the most successful. Locate Thomas Vinterberg's new production somewhere in the middle of the pack.
First the good news: Forget Julie Christie–Carey Mulligan is a superior Bathsheba. She plays frothy and determined equally, thus is totally believable as a woman of both superior intellect and impetuousness. Physically she is desirable without intending to be so, and a fireball of energy that burns those who get too close. We are convinced that if any woman can run her own farm in patriarchal Victorian England, it would be she. In the story, three men are ensnared by Bathsheba's magnetism: loyal shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthew Schoenaerts), caddish soldier Francis ("Frank") Troy (Tom Sturridge), and steadfast bachelor farmer William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). Each wishes to wed and bed Bathsheba, though two of the suitors are decidedly as unwise as King David. Schoenaerts is also outstanding and plays Oak as Everdene's equal in both kind intentions and pigheadedness, as if he is the anvil to her hammer. (Did Hardy play off the Bathsheba's name—Hebrew for "daughter of the oath"–to come up with Oak?) Sheen is terrific as Boldwood, Everdene's older, socially gauche suitor. Indeed, he's so sympathetic he breaks your heart. Also praiseworthy is the musical score. This movie gets folk music right, because Vinterberg had the commonsense to hire Eliza Carthy as music advisor and include her and her band on the soundtrack.
The not-so-good: Sturridge is a wooden soldier as Troy and he's no Terence Stamp in the glamour department either. His flat demeanor is also frequently the feel of this film. It is gorgeous on the surface, but not much actually happens. To return to an earlier point, Hardy's novels are often about internal struggles and these require time–like a 460-page novel or a four-part BBC mini series–to show how characters grow and change. Try to cram this into just two hours and what we get is Far from the Madding Crowd on amphetamines. This means it's obvious from the get-go who Bathsheba should be with, and just as obvious what will end badly–even if you've never read the book. Vinterberg tries to give us the feel of 19th century rural life, but these come off as random snapshots disconnected from affairs of the heart and mind.
Far from the Madding Crowd is ultimately a classic middling picture–neither great nor bad. It's certainly a pleasant enough way to pass a few hours, but it lacks the transcendence of Hardy's novel. –Rob Weir