Beautifully shot and superbly brought to life by a strong cast led by Carey Mulligan, Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd is certainly worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of period romances and adaptations of Victorian era classics in particular.
However, because this particular Victorian classic has been adapted a number of times into films and TV mini-series, it begs comparison not only to Hardy’s work itself, but also to the media adaptations that have come before, and ultimately it falls short of the greatness achieved in those works. Because of its minimalist approach to distilling Hardy’s novel, this new film version feels like a “Cliff’s Notes” version, hitting all the most relevant plot beats while glossing over or skipping entirely the material that makes those plot beats so impactful.
Proud, headstrong, free-spirited Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan), orphaned at an early age and living with her aunt, Mrs. Hurst, on a small farm amidst the rolling green hills of Dorset, England in 1860, finds herself courted awkwardly by Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a quiet and hard-working shepherd tenanting lands nearby. Though she finds herself taken by Gabriel’s soft-spoken and gentle manner, when he rather suddenly proposes marriage, she playfully declines, declaring that if she did desire to have a husband at all (which she doesn’t) she’d want that man to “tame” her, and she doesn’t believe Gabriel capable of that.
Not long after, the two find their fortunes tied together anyway, as Bathsheba inherits a sizable farm and finds herself in need of a capable shepherd, and Gabriel finds himself in need of employment after an unforeseen calamity forces him to leave behind the land he’d been tending and hoping to purchase. Bathsheba also finds herself facing unique challenges as the sole mistress of a working farm, having to earn the respect of her tenant workers, her neighboring landowners, and those who might purchase the seed and grain she harvests from her lands at market. She vows to surprise them all with her hard work, diligence, and dedication, and to rebuild the former greatness of what she’s inherited, and Gabriel pledges to help her.
But complications arise when other suitors to Bathsheba present themselves. First, there’s William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a wealthy, middle-aged bachelor whose estate neighbors Bathsheba’s and who genuinely comes to like and admire her, despite his attention to her being initially earned via a thoughtless and whimsical prank. And then comes cavalry Sergeant Francis York (Tom Sturridge), a dashing soldier who dazzles Bathsheba with charm, bravado, and a display of swordsmanship he uses to set her heart aflutter and her better judgement on holiday. Despite her wisdom and practicality in matters of running her lands, Bathsheba is both impetuous and inexperienced in matters of courtship and love. That combination leads her to make rash choices that jeopardize all that she’s come to hold dear, especially the esteem and friendship of those who have come to care for her most, as well as her own personal liberty and financial security.
Danish film director Thomas Vinterberg takes a few liberties with the staging of events depicted in Hardy’s novel, but for the most part, events play out the way anyone familiar with the story would expect them to. If anything, Vinterberg and the film’s script penned by David Nicholls (who also adapted Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles for BBC Films in 2008) softens the depictions of various characters, grounding them and making their decisions and actions, however emotionally-driven and damaging, somehow less extreme and more genteel. The script also incorporates Hardy’s own dialogue in key moments, and that, in conjunction with breathtaking cinematography work from director of photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen highlighting the unique light and landscape of the Dorset region, is perhaps the film’s best asset in its effort to capture the essence of Hardy’s work.
The cast here also brings their A-game, with the always exceptional Carey Mulligan bringing to life Bathsheba in a way that both makes sense for the time and setting and is relatable to modern audiences. Bathsheba, like so many of Hardy’s other memorable protagonists, is as much a victim of her social circumstances as she is of her own choices, and Mulligan brings just the right amount of pluckiness and willfulness to her portrayal of Bathsheba to both charm audiences and still be period-appropriate as she fights against the constraints that her gender and social position would put upon her. Similarly, Matthias Schoenaerts (2014’s The Drop) brings just the right quiet strength and dignity to Gabriel Oak, qualities which both attract Bathsheba and cause them to clash when they are at cross-purposes. The film’s take on William Boldwood, played capably by veteran British actor Michael Sheen, is perhaps the one made most sympathetic when compared to his presence in the novel. He’s still very serious and stodgy, a true product of his era, but here he’s not as indignant and volatile as Hardy depicted him. He’s a man of kindness and restraint, one audiences can genuinely believe might earn Bathsheba’s friendship and respect, if not her passion. Tom Sturrdige is also memorable and almost immediately hissable as Sergeant York, though viewers familiar with the novel and previous film versions may be surprised by the subtle tweaks to the character’s back story and actions that give York a little more realistic depth.
But all this fine work on behalf of cast and crew, as well as any merits the film makers’ take on the material might deserve, are wholly undercut by the film’s pacing and handling of time compression in regards to the speed with which the events all take place. The lack of any real sense of time passing between the pivotal events of the story robs the material of some of its impact and, perhaps more importantly, some of its sense. There’s often no indication at all from the production that the events audiences are witnessing are sometimes separated by months or even years — such was the pace of pastoral life in the rural England that Hardy so often wrote about — and thus the progression of the story as a whole feels unduly rushed, despite the film running just shy of two hours in length. With that running time in mind, it’s hard to argue that a film of this nature should have been longer; rather, the time put in might have been used a bit more efficiently, with more indications of just how much time is passing and being compressed from beginning to end, to make it all really click.
Considering that the most well-known and well regarded film adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd, the 1967 version starring Julie Christie, Peter Finch, and Terrance Stamp, ran almost three hours in its effort to do justice to Hardy’s novel, it’s perhaps best to regard this film’s effort to accomplish the same task in two hours as bold and ambitious. But however one might admire that ambition, there’s no denying that this film, while quite good in its own right, won’t make you forget that earlier version, if indeed you’ve seen it and hold it dear to your heart. In that regard, if you’ve never seen that version, best not to go seek it out prior to seeing this one. Just forgive this one’s failings, let others make comparisons to what’s past, and enjoy the film for what it is.
Far From the Madding Crowd
Starring Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturrdige, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg.
Running Time: 118 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and violence.