Following a late career comeback (of sorts) with 2012’s exceptional The Hunt, Dogme 95 co-founder Thomas Vinterberg gently infuses one of Thomas Hardy’s best known novels with his own social-realist sensibilities, and while reverential in many respects, lends his reading of the 1874’s Far From The Madding Crowd a new lease of life. Unexpectedly finding herself the heiress to her uncle’s country estate, the stubborn and ambitious Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) struggles to remain independent whilst faced with a trio of male suitors: stoic and straight-talking sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts); repressed and potentially-depressed aging bachelor William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and entitled, pig-headed and bold Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). Well-acted and gorgeously shot, Far From The Madding Crowd provides a complex portrait of a gendered society defined by class, honing in on the contradictory and often frustrating quality of human nature, wherein happenstance plays a key role in the fate of all major players.”
For those unversed in Hardy’s writings, Vinterberg may seem an odd fit for British period drama, yet in Madding Crowd’s incisive depiction of the societal strictures in Victorian Britain, he finds an unlikely bedfellow. As Bathsheba observes, it’s difficult for a woman to define their feelings in a language chiefly made by men to express theirs. Adapting Hardy’s novel, Starter for Ten author David Nicholls nimbly navigates Everdene’s feminist sensibilities whilst exploring three distinct threads of masculinity in Oak, Boldwood and Troy. Despite some story compression issues occasionally hindering an otherwise engaging narrative, these almost uniformly well-drawn portraits are lent further authenticity through Vinterberg’s creative direction. In a career bookended with masterpieces (Festen, The Hunt) Vinterberg has gradually adapted the naturalism that defined the Dogme 95 movement to more palatable fare, and stylistically, Far From the Madding Crowd sees the director embrace a hitherto unseen penchant for visual lyricism. Working consecutively with The Hunt cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, the Dorset landscapes are beautifully rendered, magic-hour photography presenting an idyllic, sunburst setting, with only the occasional storm (It is England, after all). The unforgettable shot of a farmer roaming a beach littered with the corpses of his flock of sheep provides one of the year’s most affecting images. While handheld close-up shots lend the period setting a modern sensibility, immaculate costume design and art direction help to convincingly ground this adaptation in the Victorian era.
It’s a largely reverential adaptation, with much of Nicholls’ dialogue lifted directly from the original novel. Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights this is not. Last adapted to the screen in the 1967 Julie Christie-starring film, Madding Crowd’s narrative has aged remarkably well. Despite some rushed story elements (Juno Temple’s turn as the hopeless Fanny is afforded far too little screen time to be completely affecting), Vinterberg’s cast uniformly sell the drama. Mulligan gradually allows us a way into the seemingly impenetrable Bathsheba, overcoming the character’s often frustrating decisions. Whether she’s proudly shooting down a proposal from a vulnerable Gabriel as he’d ‘never be able to tame her’ or dismissing farm workers on her first day as owner, Everdene takes no prisoners, audience included. Yet Mulligan taps into the character’s greater depths, the occasional nervous glance providing respite from Bathsheba’s otherwise hardline attitude to reveal uncertainty beneath a facade of blind ambition. Schoenaerts brings a sturdy, salt-of-the-earth quality to the aptly named Oak, and having smouldered his way through Madding Crowd, Suite Francaise and A Little Chaos, he’s undoubtedly 2015’’s newly anointed pin-up for the over-65’s. As the tragic Boldwood, Sheen is as good as ever, providing his signature masterclass in repressive longing, recently perfected in his turn in Showtime’s Masters of Sex. Sturridge’s public schoolboy looks make him interesting casting for Sergeant Troy, yet his transition from jilted fiancée to scowling gambler is all too brisk, his somewhat one-note performance failing to overcome the script’s tendency to vilify the character’s actions.