Cole Clay // Film Critic
The Romantics are either naive or brilliant, but FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD novelist Thomas Hardy leaned far more towards the latter. This is one of the seminal novels in British literature, and without a doubt, one of the more progressive entries of the period.
Victorian novels have been adapted for the screen with great success in the past decade. Costume dramas such as Joe Wright’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and Cary Fukanaga’s JANE EYRE served as proper re-imaginations. However, the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg takes a stylistic departure from work in Dogme 95 create, but his themes are filled with charm, showmanship, murder, paupers and other Brit-lit tropes.
Sweeping montages of the English countryside open the film as Hardy’s free-thinking Bathsheba Everdene (Cary Mulligan) inherits the sheep farm of her recently deceased uncle. Her haughty ways attracts the attention of Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a farmer who’s down on his luck after an inexperienced sheepdog drives his flock off of a cliff. Oak can’t shake Everdene’s beguiling smile; he approaches her hat in hand and as chance would have it falls under her employ after a rejected marriage proposal. Schoenaerts hones in on the masculinity he was given by the heavens, but doesn’t sacrifice the loyal and almost nebbish personality of Oak.
Love is traveling through the air like a contagion of the worst design. An eligible woman of this caliber attracts the attention of not one, not two, but three suitors all vying for her affection, but her anti-Victorian mind doesn’t want to sacrifice her independence (Bathsheba don’t need no man to be happy). Not even her wealthy, aristocratic neighbor William Boldwood (Martin Sheen) can take her away from the sweet, sweet single life. Sheen is a sad sack and is playing a pompous ass of a different kind. A red coated Sergeant named Frank Troy (Tom Sullivan) enters the picture looking for his lost sweetie, Fanny Robin (Juno Temple), but like the other two galoots, tries his hand at courting Everdene.
Vinterberg’s adaptation may seem like Masterpiece Theater fodder, but he inflicts a socially resonant tone that quietly screams the determination of literature’s best heroines. Sullivan is the perfect fit as Troy, a scoundrel of the highest order, but dammit when that red coat swings his blade he can sure make a lady swoon. His foreplay causes a sexual awakening that Everdene had been fighting against as he performs a tension filled mating dance in the infamous scene that’s showcased on the poster.
Everdene refuses to listen to her own sage advice and opts for the level-headed Oaks who becomes her dear friend and confidant. This becomes all the more frustrating because it’s already established she is capable of making her own decisions. But, it’s all redeemed by the world class coolness of Schoenaerts, who has burst onto the Hollywood scene from his native Belgium with leading man qualities you just can’t teach.
It’s an infectious script that screenwriter David Nichols has penned. And it’s no surprise he handles the task with elegance as he recently developed the BBC television version of Charles Dickens’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Fans of the book will fall under the romantic spell of the episodic nature of the film that embellishes on some elements of the novel, while leaving others in the periphery, but that just comes with the territory with an adaptation.
Vinterberg’s affection for the source material is apparent, but most of all he understands the wants and needs of the ultra-complex Everdene, who wants to be wanted for who she is, not what she owns. This period drama is elegant, yet erotic and will stir up emotional resonance for fans and non-fans alike.
FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD opens today.