“Far from the Madding Crowd”, based on Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel of the same name, is a solid adaptation to admire and appreciate. As a period drama, it looks both natural and gorgeous in its realistic presentation of a peaceful rural area surrounding its heroine and three different men who happen to circle around her. As a romance drama irreversibly driven by fate and coincidence, it engages us through the quiet emotional conflicts among its main characters who are stuck in their complicated circumstance in one way or another, and it certainly helps that the movie is supported by the strong performances from most of its main cast members.
It is 1870 in England, and we are introduced to Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) and Gabriel Oak (Matthias Shoenaerts), two young people living in a small country town in Dorset. When Gabriel proposes to Bathsheba, it seems they can be a good couple with stable income considering Gabriel’s promising economic status, but marriage is the last thing Bathsheba wants for her life. While she probably knows well that she has considerable social disadvantages as a woman living in the 19th Century, she is determined to lead an independent life of her own none the less, and you will not be surprised to learn that the surname of the popular heroine in the Hunger Games trilogy actually came from this spirited young lady ready to step forward on her own terms.
Not long after Bathsheba rejects Gabriel’s proposal, they find themselves in completely reversed social positions. Due to a sudden terrible incident caused by his new shepherd dog, Gabriel loses almost everything including his herd. As a result, he leaves his town for a new start, and he soon gets employed at a farm in the other town. The owner of the farm turns out to be none other than Bathsheba, who inherits it from her recently deceased uncle.
Gabriel has no problem with working under the woman who could have been his wife, and Bathsheba is glad to have him near her although there is a social barrier between them due to their changed situation at present. While Mulligan instantly holds our attention with her unadorned performance which effortlessly reveals vitality and determination behind Bathsheba’s seemingly docile appearance, Shoenaerts, who has been more notable since his superlative performances in “Bullhead” (2011) and “Rust and Bone” (2012), makes a right balance between roughness and softness for his humble, earnest character, and their scenes are always accompanied with palpable emotional undercurrents thanks to their low-key chemistry on the screen.
With Gabriel as one of her most trusted employees, Bathsheba begins to take care of the farm business for herself, and she makes it clear to her employees that many things are going to be different under her management. She immediately draws attention when she appears along with her maid at a local dealing place full of men, and her forthright attitude in price negotiation surely does not escape the attention of William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), an affluent bachelor farmer living next to her farm.
Bathsheba still does not have much interest in marriage, but, out of mischievous impulse, she sends a card to Boldwood on Valentine’s Day, and, unfortunately, that careless act of hers stirs something inside the heart of this lonely middle-aged man. Sheen is heartbreaking at times as his character becomes miserable and frustrated in his undying passion toward the woman he may not win in the end, and he and Mulligan have a sad, poignant moment when they happen to sing together during a barn dinner held at Bathsheba’s farm. As they look at each other from the distance, Bathsheba clearly sees how hopelessly her neighbor carries a torch for her, but she cannot honestly promise him anything, and that leads to more frustration for him.
And then there comes Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a dashing lad who comes into the town for his private matter. After coming across Bathsheba during one evening, he begins to hang around her, and she cannot help but attracted to him although it is apparent that he is an untrustworthy cad. When she is taken to a nearby forest by him, he gives her one hell of presentation of his swordcraft, and she feels enthralled as he swiftly wields his sword right in front of her without hurting her. She eventually makes a regretful choice, and that ultimately results in an outcome which will affect her as well as her men.
Being the straightforward adaptation of a British literature work, the movie looks like an odd choice in the career of the director Thomas Vinterberg, who has mainly been known for the Dogma 95 movement initiated by him and Lars von Trier. Compared to the raw emotional power of his previous film “The Hunt” (2012), “Far from the Madding Crowd” feels more gentle and polished, but that does not mean it is one of those stuffy, lifeless period drama movies. Its period background is imbued with vivid realism to put us into the world inhabited by its characters, and the cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen shines with lush beauty whenever the camera looks at the sky and the wide rambling landscapes below it during early morning or late evening.
On the whole, the movie is a better film compared to the 1967 version directed by John Schlesinger, which is also a handsome period film but riddled with several problems. While it is supported well by its main cast members including Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Terence Stamp, the 1967 version is overlong in its bloated narrative, and Bathsheba in this version feels rather superficial as the movie focuses more on her romantic entanglement with the other three main characters than her social struggles. In the other words, she looks more like someone to inspire Bella Swan than Katniss Everdeen.
The 2015 version has its own imperfect aspects. The adapted screenplay by David Nicholls is efficient in its economic handling of plot and characters, but it stumbles a bit during its last act which could be more powerful under slower plot progress. Lacking that magnetic intensity of Terence Stamp, Tom Sturridge is the weak link in the main cast despite his efforts, and Juno Temple is underutilized as a woman as ill-fated as Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
But these flaws are minor problems, and “Far from the Madding Crowd” remains as a well-made period drama film to enjoy not only for its engaging human drama but also for its authentic period atmosphere. I came to feel lots of sympathy for Boldwood, I began to admire Gabriel’s quiet dignity, and, above all, I cared about Bathsheba and her difficult circumstance she must handle for herself. At one point, she is advised to do what she thinks is right, but does she really know what is right for herself? When she later makes a decision on what she should do, you will be glad to see her going forward without sacrificing her integrity at all.