Equipped with its own brand of rough-hewn glamour, the new film version of the 1874 love quadrangle Far From the Madding Crowd is a long way from the widescreen, 171-minute running time and anachronistic Julie Christie eyeliner of the Thomas Hardy novel’s best-known previous adaptation, released in 1968.
In ’68 the posters for director John Schlesinger’s version touted the story of “a willful passionate girl … and the three men who want her!” Little of that sort of fulminating can be found in the vicinity of director Thomas Vinterberg’s version, a relatively compact and forcefully acted affair starring Carey Mulligan as the farmer-heroine Bathsheba Everdeen. For those working from the contemporary literary perspective of The Hunger Games, yes, Katniss Everdeen is named after Hardy’s magnetic character. And as ever, there are three men who want her.
The new film’s adaptation by David Nicholls tightens the focus on the relationship between Everdeen and her first serious suitor, the sheep farmer Gabriel Oak, played by the Belgian-born heartthrob Matthias Schoenaerts. Hardy’s narrative contrives, exquisitely, to torture his characters with massive reversals of fortune as Everdeen’s life as an independent agent becomes complicated by the dashing-yet-weaselly soldier Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). The third gent in her life is the older man next door, prosperous bachelor William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who pines and pines and bides his time while Everdeen’s life proceeds along Destiny’s path.
It’s a nice-looking path: Vinterberg shot Far From the Madding Crowd in some choice English locations. The Danish-born director’s earlier work includes The Celebration and, more recently, The Hunt, tales of rampant, crushing hypocrisy and poisonous social mores. With the Hardy project, Vinterberg ventures into related yet different territory. Everdeen exists in Hardy’s novel to be underestimated, dismissed, written off—her triumph is a triumph of resolve over expectation. While some of the requirements of Hardy’s narrative elude or simply do not interest Vinterberg—in general, the bigger and more “scenic” the moment, the less compelling it comes off—he’s a strong partner to his key actors.
Mulligan is pretty terrific as Everdeen. For any performer playing a protagonist ahead of her time, the challenge is to respect the boundaries of what that character was, and is, up against. At times Mulligan’s knowing half-smile suggests a woman slightly out of period. But her technique is shrewd and assured, and Vinterberg’s (relatively steady) deployment of hand-held cameras brings us close to the faces, and the predicaments.
I can’t help but wish this new Far From the Madding Crowd came with the thrill of interpretive discovery, the way Jane Campion gave Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady a good shaking-up or, more conventionally, the way James Ivory mainstreamed E.M. Forester in A Room With a View and Howards End. This achievement isn’t quite that. But a good, solid version of this novel, guided by Mulligan, is still an achievement.
Far From the Maddening Crowd (PG-13): ★★★✩✩