by Matt Levine
The greatest moment in Thomas Vinterberg’s Oscar-nominated The Hunt (2012) lies in a single close-up: the precocious six-year-old who accuses the main character of molesting her—falsely—stares at two men fighting, aware of the chaos she’s caused, her feelings unknowable. It’s an incredibly mysterious depiction of young childhood, which is so often seen as frank and innocent in the movies.
Similarly, in Vinterberg’s English-language follow-up Far from the Madding Crowd, an oblique close-up provides the film’s strongest moment: thanked by a romantic rival for not marrying the much-loved heroine, a seemingly righteous shepherd named Gabriel (Matthias Schoenaerts) glares at him, a glint of violence apparent in his usually tranquil eyes. Viewed in profile, this nervy image hints at the heated passions that course beneath the surface of this typically well-behaved melodrama. While Vinterberg’s pulsing intensity and visual precision are more fully on display in The Hunt or Celebration (1998), Far from the Madding Crowd provides a solid, occasionally stirring adaptation of a literary classic (in this case, Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel).
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Producers: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich
Writers: David Nicholls, Thomas Hardy (novel)
Cinematographer: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Editor: Claire Simpson
Music: Craig Armstrong
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple, Bradley Hall, Jessica Barden
US Theatrical Release: May 1, 2015
US Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Little of the plot is changed from Hardy’s novel; the story isn’t so much adapted as truncated. We meet the headstrong Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) after the death of her parents, when she goes to live and work on her aunt’s idyllic farm in southwest England. Her neighbor turns out to be a tall, suntanned, dreamy-eyed shepherd named Gabriel (Schoenaerts); the two of them first meet in a scene that can only be described as teeming with sexual tension. But when Gabriel asks for her hand in marriage she decisively responds that being a wife isn’t for her--she doesn’t want to be a man’s property. (She wouldn’t so much mind being a bride, she explains, if it didn’t mean you had to be a wife afterwards.) Bathsheba moves away suddenly, claiming her uncle’s inheritance. Gabriel is ruined when a new sheepdog drives his herd over a cliff, a chilling scene as visualized by Vinterberg (it elicited gasps from the preview audience).
Moving alongside the twists and coincidences so common to Victorian novels (turned films), we flash-forward several years, when Gabriel has wandered to a small village near Weatherbury (a fictional town in Hardy’s semi-utopian region of “Wessex”). One night, he rescues a barn from a raging fire, only to learn that the farm now belongs to Bathsheba as part of her inheritance. He agrees to work for her, taming the affection he clearly still has for her.
Soon, though, their reunion morphs into a love triangle—or, I suppose, love rectangle. Bathsheba is courted by her wealthy middle-aged neighbor, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who is dry and timid but promises to love her truthfully. Again, however, Bathsheba denies him, uttering one of the more overtly feminist lines from Hardy’s novel: “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” It is only when Bathsheba stumbles across a soldier in the woods one night—a forlorn man named Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge), whose spur not-so-subtly gets caught on her dress—that Bathsheba gives in to temptation and agrees to marry him. Troy is the prettiest of her three suitors but also the stupidest and cruelest. As he becomes increasingly selfish, Bathsheba realizes that she relinquished her independence for the man least deserving of her. And in the manner of many romantic melodramas, it’s painfully obvious that the man by her side the whole time—good, old, aptly-named Gabriel Oak—is the one with whom she truly belongs.
This muted romance, all fiery glances and restrained passion, becomes a compelling story in this adaptation: these are all fairly sympathetic characters (with the exception of the cocky Sergeant Troy), and there are small human moments (a shared song at a dinner table, the patching of roofs in a rainstorm) that stoke our compassion. As solid as David Nicholls's screenplay is, the cast is largely responsible for such pathos; the long-suffering stolidity of Gabriel and the haughty civility displayed by Boldwood are believably nuanced in the performances of Schoenaerts and Sheen. This show mostly belongs to Carey Mulligan, though, and she’s astounding—impossible not to watch whenever she’s onscreen. Bathsheba’s innate independence, the windblown smile on her face when she’s working in her fields, her guarded love for other people—they all come fully alive in Mulligan’s personification. One of the central questions regarding Hardy’s novel is its shaded portrayal of Bathsheba—it may or may not suggest that she’s complicit in the men’s doomed love for her, callously playing with their affections—but there’s no such concern in this adaptation, which portrays her as carefree and cavalier, stronger than the men who surround her. Indeed, Vinterberg’s adaptation makes clear (more so than the previous version in 1967) that the traditional gender roles of melodrama are being subverted—it’s the men who pine and suffer for the love of an independent woman.
Far from the Madding Crowd plays out in a lush setting that’s beautiful to behold: the rolling hills of southern England, giving radiant life to the edenic Wessex of Hardy’s imagination. Vinterberg and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (who also shot The Hunt) seem to borrow from the Barbizon painters in depicting the soft, bright rural setting, suffused with light and a whole palette of colors. If the foreboding Norse scenery of The Hunt served a perfect backdrop to that somber movie, here the ravishing, sun-drenched countryside parallels not only romantic passion but Bathsheba’s radiance, a boundless warmth that draws others to her.
That being said, the film suffers from a malady familiar to adaptations of literary classics: it simply speeds through the story as quickly as possible, compressing and often rushing through everything, leaving us with few impressions of why this story needed to be retold in the first place. What was it about Hardy’s novel that begged a new version—was it the casual feminism or the wry depiction of life's twisted irony that attracted Vinterberg? He has so little time to focus on anything besides narrative that it’s hard to tell. Such rapid, tunnel-vision storytelling, dedicated only to sequencing events in the plot, can’t convey the deep complexity of these characters--what, for example, would make Boldwood so reclusive and yet so dogged in his pursuit of Bathsheba?--and doesn’t allow us to experience this setting in all of its visual splendor (a particular disappointment in this case). At 119 minutes, one assumes there was some kind of contractual obligation to bring this in at under two hours, because if the film was even ten minutes longer, there might have been more room for character development, visual observation, and (to put it simply) personality.
As it is, we’ll have to make do with the movie’s excellent performances and beautiful cinematography, which serve as capable substitutes. Far from the Madding Crowd might be little more than a skillful transliteration, but it is at least skillful and unexpectedly moving. It’s also somewhat new territory for its director, Thomas Vinterberg, who has split his career between Dogme-infused provocations (Celebration, Dear Wendy) and more classical storytelling styles (It’s All About Love, The Hunt). For the first time working in a historical period from a well-known literary work, Vinterberg seems a bit restrained at times by the material—not unlike his characters, seething with emotion they’re unable to express—but he also lends the story a frank intensity that helps offset the more melodramatic elements. While I might prefer the slowly-mounting pace and acute characterizations of some of his earlier films, it’s equally impressive to mold an aesthetic style in order to tell a well-known story as vividly as possible—a skill that Vinterberg has apparently mastered.