Title: Far From The Madding Crowd
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Major Players: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen
Out Of Five: 3
Like a challenge? Danish director Thomas Vinterberg must. Why else would he have agreed to helming the film version of a well-known and well-loved English novel – one that was turned into a movie in the mid-60s that’s remembered with huge affection?
The novel, and film, in question is Thomas Hardy’s rural romance, Far From The Madding Crowd. And here I have to put my hands up. Not only was the book on my O Level English syllabus, but I saw the film a couple of times as part of my studies and two things have always stayed in my mind. Firstly, as movies go, it was a pretty faithful adaptation of the book and, secondly, it was very well cast, especially when it came to Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak and Peter Finch as Boldwood. But that was 1967. This is now.
We’re in the Wessex of the 1890s and spirited Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is working on her aunt’s farm when she rejects a proposal of marriage from local farmer, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). She then inherits a huge estate from another relative, flirts with local landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and then attracts the attention of soldier, Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge). Oak is still around, working for her since losing his farm. So who does she choose?
You get the sense early on that Vinterberg realises he’s given himself an uphill task because he’s stripped back the original narrative, leaving only the multiple love stories surrounding Bathsheba. And that’s all we’ve got. Gone are is the sub-plot involving the devious bailiff, Pennyways, and the rustics are reduced to being simply the workforce on the farm, instead of being characters in their own right providing some rural colour and a laugh or two.
The right move? Had he produced a film full of passion and intensity, then yes, our entire attention would have been focussed on the story. But he hasn’t, and we’re not. It’s as if a bucket of cold water’s been thrown over the film, leaving something lukewarm and occasionally soggy. And that doesn’t just apply to Bathsheba’s relationships with the men in her life. While the book’s most memorable big scenes are transferred to the big screen – Troy using swordplay as part of his seduction of Bathsheba, the storm when Oak saves the harvest – all the guts have been taken out of them. The swordplay scene is given an intimate forest setting – which works – but, given its significance, it’s surprisingly brief and there’s nothing especially sexual about it. And the storm sequence is over almost in a flash – of lightening – and appears to be there to give Bathsheba another chance to flash a coy, girly smile at Oak and keep him dangling. And that’s it!
The casting is variable. Of the four main roles, Tom Sturridge is horribly mis-cast as Sergeant Troy, giving us a teenager who’s just left public school and who fancies himself as Bathsheba’s toy boy. Except that Troy isn’t any of that. Conversely, Michael Sheen is an interesting choice to play Boldwood, although instead of going for the dark, brooding character of the book, his interpretation is twitchy, living on the edge of his nerves. That sits reasonably comfortably with the questions raised about his mental stability, but it’s not consistent with the obsessive side of his nature revealed during the film’s climax.
Matthias Schoenaerts’ Gabriel Oak is his third romantic lead in as many months and is definitely an improvement on Suite Francaise and A Little Chaos. While he’s not the most obvious choice for the role, there are moments when he hits the nail absolutely on the head. When he loses his herd of sheep, his combined anger and grief is palpable. And there are times when he looks at Bathsheba in a way that would melt any woman’s heart. So Vinterberg doesn’t need to make it so obvious how things are going to work out – and he really does lay it on with a trowel!
While none of the male performances fully bring Hardy’s characters to life, Carey Mulligan is the film’s saving grace as Bathsheba, bringing spirit, energy and conviction to the role. Anything less and the whole thing would have fallen apart but thankfully she captures the essence of the character, with all her contradictions, capriciousness and occasional naivete. She’s totally right for the part and completely nails it.
Yes, I’ll admit was sceptical about seeing this new version. As it is, it’s better than I expected, but when it falls down, it doesn’t just slip, it rolls over in the mud as well. Thankfully, there are enough strengths to balance that, mainly in the slight but feisty shape of Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba. Thank goodness for her!
Far From The Madding Crowd is released nationwide on Friday, 1 May.