Far From the Madding Crowd is a handsome literary adaptation. The surface sheen is impeccable, with gorgeous colors – cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen provides the greenest greens and reddest reds this side of Technicolor – and convincing 19th century detail. Who would’ve thought something so sumptuous could come from Thomas Vinterberg, the Dogme 95 co-founder who has previously given us upsetting dramas of abuse shot in digital smears (The Celebration) or austere pale shudders (The Hunt)? This is a richly textured Great Illustrated Classics sort of film, David Nicholls’ script collapsing the plot details and character motivations from Thomas Hardy’s classic serialized novel, smoothing out the structure to make it fit into a two-hour package. Vinterberg moves through the adaptation, hitting the highlights of the narrative’s emotional beats while wisely keeping the focus on the scenery and cast. He’s content to condense and visualize a story better told in novel form. A bit more interpretive intent could’ve elevated the effort, but what’s here is respectably effective.
What could’ve been a glossy gist of Hardy’s plot is given some depth by the tremendously talented cast. They provide a pivot point from which the audience can turn the thin surface on its side and glimpse the complexity within. (In other words, it won’t lead students too far astray if they misguidedly attempt a book report based on this film alone.) Each performance suggests emotional currents and historical context the condensed motivations don’t enliven in and of themselves. At the center of the proceedings is Carey Mulligan, a performer seemingly built for period pieces. She’s at her best (An Education, Never Let Me Go, The Great Gatsby, and so on) when she can play a woman struggling against the constraints of what a society expects her to be. Here, as Bathsheba Everdene, a young woman in the mid-1800s with only an education to her name who suddenly inherits a farm, she plays a great deal of determination. She’s taking charge, running the farm, willing to ruffle feathers of grumpy men.
But she’s also dealing with a variety of potential suitors, and must decide whether a reliable farmer fallen on bad times (Matthias Schoenaerts), a well-off older fellow (Michael Sheen), or a passionate soldier (Tom Sturridge), is worthy of her time and affections. They represent three very different kinds of men, the strong silent type, the lonely graying bachelor, and the fiery slimeball. Each actor plays the type to strong effect, finding nicely individualized chemistry with Mulligan. One seems a natural pairing, and so becomes a lovely throughline of smoldering unrequited love, a fine underplayed romance and a good way to renew your crushes on the participants. The other two men present a variety of complications. The plot moves along in a structure close to the novel’s original serialized nature, delaying the inevitable for the sake of melodrama. There’s not quite enough psychological underpinning in the script to sell the developments – especially a marriage decision with only a nice swordplay-as-foreplay scene to explain – but the actors make it work anyway.
Vinterberg and crew do a fine job creating the sense of place necessary for their story. It’s a time when women were allowed some agency, and yet still beholden to a society placing propriety and prosperity above personhood. She’s forced to consider economics as much as emotions when contemplating a relationship. Marriages are mergers. Betting on the wrong man can sink her solvency. A dashing man with a good pitch can turn into a lousy husband who would literally bet the farm, leaving them in financial and marital ruin. This recognition simmers in Mulligan’s eyes as she tries to do what’s best for the farm and its employees without shortchanging her own happiness. She and the supporting cast inhabit their characters' dilemmas with appealing conviction. Because the central interpersonal currents run strong, and the production values are high, the CliffsNotes to which they’re deployed doesn't seem so bad.