“Far from the Madding Crowd” Is Imperfect, Yet Brisk and Beautiful

Far form the Madding Crowd

Far from the Madding Crowd (Thomas Vinterberg, 2015)

First published in 1874, Far from the Madding Crowd was English writer Thomas Hardy‘s fourth novel and his first big commercial success. The book tells the story of the original Miss Everdene – Bathsheba, not Katniss – and her various male admirers, one of whom is Gabriel Oak, a man who at the start of the tale is a farmer with a promising future, but who in a stunning reversal of fortune ends up becoming Bathsheba’s shepherd, never quite losing the torch he carries for her. From Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, who gave us the 1998 Dogme film The Celebration and the 2012 Best Foreign Language nominee The Hunt, Far from the Madding Crowd – the fourth cinematic adaptation of Hardy’s novel (the most famous of which is the 1967 John Schlesinger version) – is a gorgeously photographed period piece, and one of the fastest-paced films about the 19th century that I have ever seen.

Before seeing the movie, I read the source text (for the first time). One thing that amazed me about Vinterberg’s film is how it is both an extremely faithful adaptation of the book, and yet also an extremely brisk version of it, as if screenwriter David Nicholls (the 2012 version of Great Expectations) had first written out the entire plot of the book and then stripped away everything but the bare essentials. This is both good and bad, as much of Hardy’s writing is focused on building up the atmosphere of his fictional “Wessex” (really, Dorset) through many scenes of the local farmers and laborers in pub-based conversations, and while such moments were clearly important to Hardy, I found most of them a chore to get through as I read. They are all gone now. On the other hand, some crucial information at the end of the book is quickly glossed over, and the climactic battle between Bathsheba’s lovers is a handled a little too rapidly.

Still, what is on the screen is mostly impressive. Carey Mulligan (Never Let Me Go) – as Bathsheba – and Belgian actor Matthias Schoenarts (Rust and Bone) – as Gabriel – are magnificent, and they have a raw, palpable chemistry that is evident to all but Bathsheba. Michael Sheen (“Masters and Johnson“) – as Boldwood, Bathsheba’s lovelorn neighbor – is also strong, but when is Sheen not good . . . Unfortunately, there is a weak link in the cast, and that is Tom Sturridge (On the Road) – as Sergeant Troy – who in the book is supposed to be such hot stuff that he causes the independent Bathsheba to lose her head, yet here comes across as a dewy-eyed fop. Comparing Schoenarts to Sturridge, one wonders how Bathsheba could ever be so foolish.

Otherwise, the movie has, actually, an even strong feminist bent than the book. The first voice we hear is Bathsheba’s, in a voiceover that is a complete invention of screenwriter Nicholls. This, then, is her story, and it is a pleasure to watch Mulligan’s performance as her character rises, falls, and then rises again. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is both highly enjoyable and quite beautiful. And oh-so brisk.

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