Far from the Madding Crowd is the newest cinematic incarnation of the Thomas Hardy novel, but it perhaps fits most comfortably somewhere between a top-of-the-line Masterpiece Theatre production and the recent slew of Jane Austen films. That’s not a criticism, but a categorical description. Perhaps more exactly, it’s a first cousin to the 2005 Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley, to which is suffers somewhat by comparison.
Like P&P, it features an intelligent, capable, independent female who doesn’t need a husband, thank you very much. Her name? Bathsheba Everdene, and yes, if that last name sounds familiar, it’s because The Hunger Games deliberately took its lead’s name from her. FMC takes place in a world where women are expected to get married both because they want to and because they need to, and any other action is met with confusion or criticism. It even features the same rakish military character: Mr. Wickham in P&P, and Sergeant Troy in FMC.
Yet the film suffers in the comparison in one significant way. While P&P was a shortened version of a book that had famously been presented in cinematic form in a television miniseries, the 2005 version was lean, mean and of a piece with itself. If you didn’t know the book or the miniseries, the 2005 film created its own world, one that paused for beauty and allowed itself to breathe. Far from the Madding Crowd tries to do the same thing, but feels occasionally rushed, truncated and disjointed. It looks at times, especially in the early sequences, like a visual checklist of events that need to happen to get things moving.
Fortunately for the film, its actors are first-rate, if not always spot-on in their characterizations. Carey Mulligan (An Education) is one of our finest young actresses, and is always a pleasure to watch. The film gives her a better character to play with than Daisy in The Great Gatsby (essentially an impossible role), but as talented as she is, her performance can’t quite cover all the bases her character has to hit. (Spoiler alert: Her character’s decision to go with the man who sweeps her off her feet sexually seems to come from nowhere, but that could be the problem of the screenplay as much as the performance.) But she scores a solid A nonetheless in every other way, and proves again with her work her that she belongs in the circle of top young actresses to watch—not just career-wise, but also for the sheer pleasure of enjoying this talent.
The men in her life are played by talented actors who give widely varied characterizations. Going from least to best, the aforementioned Sergeant Troy is played by Tom Sturridge, whose main strength is looking just like you would expect this kind of scoundrel to look. Again, it could be the rushed, jerky screenplay, but his character is a bit over the top, gnawing on scenery as he creates such a selfish reprobate that it makes you question Bathsheba’s sanity in choosing him.
Michael Sheen as the older “rich suitor” who falls in some kind of protective “love” with Bathsheba plays a rather sad but kind middle-aged man who would love to have a lovely young wife that he can take care of and spoil. He clearly respects Bathsheba and respects her in a way, and the dynamics both romantically (he keeps saying he wants to protect her, as if he assumes she needs protecting) and economically (her fiscal future would be guaranteed) are fascinating if not expanded upon. But Sheen breaks out of the genre constraints of his character with a performance that’s always alive, if not occasionally reflective of an underlying sensitivity or stability, depending on the scene. There are moments when he shifts from one emotion to its opposite in quicksilver fashion in an unnerving way. It makes him sympathetic one minute, and worthy of pity or confusion the next. It’s become a controversial performance for good reason.
The real find of the film for English-speaking audience is Matthias Schoenaerts as farmer Gabriel Oaks, the quiet neighbor next store who becomes her first suitor, then her employee, but always her loving friend. Schoenaerts is being hailed as “the Belgian Brando,” and will likely be a star of the first order in English-speaking films. His mastery of the language is near complete; there is hardly a trace of a Continental accent in his performance.
He is also an accomplished actor, able to project strength and kindness in equal measure. But his greatest attributes have to do with his presence. He projects a (pardon the expression) manly strength not seen on the screen since Russell Crowe in Gladiator made us all sit up and take notice. And the camera simply loves him. Perhaps it’s his less-is-more approach to this character, but he nearly steals the film (some would say he does) from Ms. Mulligan, a formidable feat. To say that we’ll see more of him is stating the obvious. He’s already a star; time and more films will allow others to discover that.
It’s not hard for a film to look great these days. But this is a gorgeous film, nipping at the heels of the look of a Malick film. Danish director Thomas Vinterberg of dogme95 fame and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen don’t mimic Malick’s use of nature. But they do show us the beauty of the environment in which our characters live, and make it clear that they are intrinsically connected with the land they work. There are an unusual number of close-ups, which contribute at times to the jerky feel of the story. It’s as if we move from stunning panoramas of classic cinema to the demands of television. I was also beginning to think that there was a rather strong commitment to always putting the central character in the center of the frame when the next shot had the driver of the action just slightly left of center. Again, the comparison with Pride and Prejudice hurts this film. The older film had a cinematic style that leaned toward a strong formalism, but kept the action front and center while contributing a strongly unifying element to the film. In FMC, the film is beautiful, but the simply-yet-bumpy cinematic style unfortunately reflects the weaknesses of the screenplay. This kind of consistency is not always an advantage.
Lastly, there is the plot. The film is obliged to follow the classic book, of course, but it doesn’t make the central character’s poor choices any easier to swallow. While the film may or many not (no spoiler here) have a conventional happy ending, there is a certain level of exasperation in watching an intelligent strong female make a series of stereotypically poor romantic choices. There are moments when a modern audience gets successfully drawn into the world of the characters and their lives, and then runs into a plot point that elicits one word: “Seriously?”