It's a little amusing to me that so many key figures of the Dogme 95 movement – a manifesto comprised of strict rules that prevented filmmakers from using elaborate special effects, advanced technology or even fancy props – have since gone on to make a series of lush, polished, beautiful films. Lars von Trier made Melancholia, Kristian Levring made The Salvation and now Thomas Vinterberg has given us a visually ravishing version of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd. Perhaps making deliberately dingy, “realistic” films has given all of them a desire to make something gorgeous. Works for me.
Far from the Madding Crowd may be a conventionally handsome period drama, complete with sprawling outdoor locations, grand interior set design, fancy dresses and smart-looking uniforms, but Vinterberg's knack for creating a sense of immediacy makes the story feel more vital and present than things like this often do. He allows his actors to look just a little bit more modern than they probably would have, and draws out performances that feel relaxed and naturalistic. It's an adaptation that stands in sharp contrast to John Schlesinger's more traditional take on the tale; whittling down the running time and playing up the moments of startling melodrama.
The tale begins in 1870, and centers on Bathsheba Everdene (Cary Mulligan, An Education), a free-spirited young woman who leads a happy existence working on her aunt's farm in Dorset. Her new next-door neighbor is Gabriel Oak (an understated, appealing Matthias Schoenarts, Rust and Bone), a handsome young sheep farmer who falls in love with Bathsheba as soon as he sees her (another woman named Bathsheba reportedly had a similar effect on King David). He asks her to marry him, but she politely declines. She doesn't know Gabriel particularly well, but more importantly, she doesn't think Gabriel is capable of handling her. “I'd want a man who could tame me,” she says.
Gabriel respects her decision, though you can see he's hurting on the inside. On top of this fresh heartbreak, his life is completely upended when a mad dog kills all of Gabriel's sheep by chasing them off the edge of a cliff (a genuinely unsettling moment which suggests the film's willingness to take sharp jabs at romantic drama pleasantness). Meanwhile, Bathsheba ends up inheriting her uncle's farm. Eventually, Gabriel becomes one of Bathsheba's farm workers. He still pines for her, though he has much less to offer than he did when he first proposed.
Later, two other suitors will vie for Bathsheba's hand: the wealthy William Boldwood (Michael Sheen, The Queen) and the brash young soldier Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge, Being Julia). If Gabriel offers sturdy decency (a notion affirmed by his last name), William offers the promise of a lavish lifestyle and Sgt. Troy offers a certain dash of excitement. Meanwhile, Bathsheba is continually torn between her desire for independence and her desire for a romance. Much of the film's power comes from its examination of the ever-present conflict between the values we hold and the realities we face, and offers a sobering reminder that even strong-willed, self-reliant women can find themselves under the thumb of an oppressive partner. That was perhaps more true in 1870 than it is today, but it's still true, and Far from the Madding Crowd knows it.
The performances are exceptional across the board, with Mulligan doing particularly exceptional work as our increasingly tormented young protagonist. There's a casual confidence in her performance that slowly dissipates as the film proceeds, and seeing this bright, vibrant young woman slowly reduced to a shadow of her former self is appalling. I also greatly admired Michael Sheen's work as William, who is not presented as a sleazy opportunist but as a decent, good-hearted man who struggles to make effective romantic gestures. The scene in which he confesses the depth of his feelings to Gabriel is truly affecting stuff; demonstrating a level of naked emotional vulnerability that feels surprising coming from a character who seems so stiff and rigid at a first glance.
The film's most glaring weak point is Sturridge's work as Sgt. Troy. The character is supposed to offer a charge of enticing sexuality and bold passion, but as played by Sturridge, the character is an insufferable twit. There's a key sequence in which Sgt. Troy swings his sword around violently right in front of Bathsheba's face, coming oh-so-close to doing serious damage. The symbolism is clear: this impetuous young military man offers Bathsheba a chance to live dangerously. Unfortunately, the scene plays like an arrogant brat's childish stunt, which is a direct consequence of the decision to cast Sturridge. We're supposed to loathe Sgt. Troy eventually, and the actor is suitably loathsome, but we're also supposed to understand his initial appeal. We dislike Sgt. Troy right off the bat, and that damages the impact of the film's point.
This is a significant weakness, but not significant enough to overwhelm the film's many other virtues. It's rare that an adaptation of 19th century literature manages to capture as much social relevance as this one does, and it's remarkable to consider just how many different present-day situations can be reasonably compared to Bathsheba's turbulent journey (the same was true of Vinterberg's The Hunt, which offered a terrifying parable about societal bloodlust). I can almost guarantee you that you'll think of someone you know watching this film – and depending on the circumstances of your life, there's a possibility that you'll see yourself either in Bathsheba or in one of her suitors (though hopefully not Sgt. Troy, who probably wouldn't sit through a movie like this, anyway). It isn't consistently faithful to Hardy, but it may well have the same sort of impact on modern viewers that Hardy's book had on his 19th century readers.
Far from the Madding Crowd
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Year: 2015