In a countryside locale in Victorian era England, a headstrong farm owner named Bathsheba must decide whether to accept a marriage offer from three different men. So reads the general plot description of "Far from the Madding Crowd", the latest cinematic iteration of British novelist Thomas Hardy's most commonly adapted work (along with "Tess of the d'Urbervilles"). Like John Schlesinger and Roman Polanski before him, this romantic drama is Thomas Vinterberg's attempt to successfully translate Hardy's seemingly quaint stories to the big screen. And while a true Hardy film masterpiece still eludes us, his vision comes quite close.
As already stated, "Far from the Madding Crowd" revolves around a love quadrangle (or rectangle?) between Bathsheba and three men of distinctly different personalities and backgrounds. The first suitor she meets is Gabriel (Matthias Schoenaerts), a humble sheep farmer with big aspirations. The second, Frank (Tom Sturridge), is a rakish Sergeant already betrothed to another. Finally, there's William (Michael Sheen), a wealthy but lonely middle-aged man. All three vie for Bathsheba's affections throughout the narrative, and circumstances lead her to eventually say yes despite her independent spirit. But will she make the right choice? As the film seeks to answer this question, "Far from the Madding Crowd" beautifully explores the implications of Bathsheba's decisions in this agragrian society, where love, power and respect are intertwined with ownership of the land itself.
Like Bathsheba, Thomas Vinterberg had to solve his own puzzle in directing "Far from the Madding Crowd". Namely, how to make this 18th century literary material resonate with contemporary audiences? To address this he accomplished two things - make the film gorgeous to look at and cast each role to perfection.
Indeed, the visual storytelling is absolutely stunning, conveying the story's themes wonderfully. One particular scene in a forest stands out, when the scarlet red of Frank's uniform contrasts with the lush greens around him. These saturated colors are so breathtakingly gorgeous that it borders on fantasy. But even more importantly, the striking red figure instantly signifies the passion and danger associated with the character and the scene. All throughout the film, such similar examples exist which elevate the spectacle and make the film pop off the screen.
Speaking of popping off the screen, the most beautiful thing to look at is undoubtedly Carey Mulligan. Not since her breakout performance in "An Education" has she been this ravishing on screen. A combination of Janet Patterson's flattering costumes and Mulligan's own poise make her Bathsheba truly one of the most spellbinding characters of the year. Having watched this film merely hours after the similarly feminist "Trainwreck" made her interpretation all the more fascinating to me. The way she plainly states (with a smile on her face) to her first suitor "I'm too independent for you", aligns her more with modern women than the defiant Lizzie Bennets of her time. Her warm, contemporary spin is an unexpected delight.
Mulligan's performance isn't the only acting triumph in the film either. All three of her love interests find the truth in their characters in such captivating ways. Sheen's sympathetic vulnerability is certainly a highlight.
Ultimately, "Far from the Madding Crowd" suffers from the best flaw you can have, in that it's almost too perfect. Having not read the source novel, the film hints at a level of earth-shattering emotional turmoil that it doesn't fully deliver to the audience. Likewise, the behaviour of the characters largely follows the expectations associated with these stock types. So by the time it wraps up with its neat ending, you're left feeling a little underwhelmed despite its undeniable virtues. You therefore won't find me complaining about the next inevitable remake. For the time being however, the overall loveliness of this version will suffice.