Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge
To try and successfully bring any one of Britain’s best-loved novels to the big screen is, on its own, a tall order. However, for Thomas Vinterberg, attempting to adapt Thomas Hardy’s cherished chronicle of courtship and cultivation Far From The Madding Crowd is arguably a prospect more towering than anything he has tackled before.
For it is not just Hardy’s piquant prose that Vinterberg has had to negotiate when bringing his own vision to the big screen. Looming large over his whole production is the shadow of John Schlesinger’s sweeping 1967 version of the same source material, which, as its recent re-release proved, still holds a prestigious place in the hearts of many.
Quite wisely, Vinterberg never tries to echo other such translations of Hardy’s terrific tome. Instead he offers us his own interpretation. The plot’s core, naturally, remains the same. Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), the headstrong heiress of a large farming estate, is endeavouring to exert her own independence within a patriarchal society. Persistently vying for her attention and affection however, are three very different male suitors: Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a kind-hearted shepherd; Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a handsome sergeant; and William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a mature bachelor.
With a tighter narrative structure and a much more realist style, Vinterberg’s take is never as hearty as Schlesinger’s was, but it is a more honest one and equally as strong. The script, written by David Nicholls, shortens various sections of the storyline and omits certain sequences altogether (most notably the later scene in which Troy performs to a fairground crowd that happens to include his wife), but it never comes at the expense of the film’s cohesion.
Instead, such moments of abandon pleasingly allow Vinterberg to focus more on the feministic elements of Hardy’s book, the filmmaker justifying his remake by addressing an issue that remains particularly pertinent within contemporary society. Both writer and director rightly consider Bathsheba to not just be a feminist icon of the past, but also one for the present. And as such they valiantly show great determination, particularly during the first half of the film, in depicting Bathsheba’s strength and independence as she finds herself having to contend with the laborious realities of working the land and the lack of equal respect offered to her at the local male-dominated markets.
For Carey Mulligan, Bathsheba feels like a part the actress has been building towards ever since she superbly established herself in Lone Scherfig’s An Education. Her characterisation of the role is remarkably well rounded, imbued with charm and ingrained with complexity. Bathsheba is a heroine who’s admirably intent on proving herself and inevitably prone to both professional and personal failures. Yet in these moments of frustration we see her not fixating on, but learning from and growing because of her mistakes, and this is all due to Mulligan’s magnificence.
Just as it was for Schlesinger back in 1967 though, Vinterberg’s Far From The Madding Crowd is first and foremost a tale of love and all its complications. Much of it is handled with great care on the part of the performers. The earthy Farmer Oak is played with genial gentility by Matthias Schoenaerts, while Michael Sheen poignantly portrays the more established Farmer Boldwood as a man desperate for companionship.
The director intricately draws intimacy from both men’s encounters with Bathsheba, relocating many of their meetings away from the rolling hills of the Dorset countryside and into the closer confines of the character’s domestic interiors. Hardy’s wondrous Wessex setting is glimpsed at throughout, but it’s less of a character here and more of a beautiful bucolic backdrop that’s caressed, like a gentle breeze, by Craig Armstrong’s subtle score.
Where the film falls is in its treatment of the striking Sergeant Troy. Much of this is down to Tom Sturridge, who lacks the caddish confidence and roguish charm that Terrence Stamp effortlessly exuded, which essentially lowers the soldier to someone who’s unlikeable and unattractive even when he’s dazzling us with his dignified swordsmanship. But Nicholls and Vinterberg are also to blame, reducing his relationship with Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple) to a mere footnote that restricts the amount of emotive depth that can be drawn from his character later on.
For some, this cold-handed disregard for one of literature’s most iconic scoundrels is likely to be a deal breaker, but here’s hoping that most people can see past it. Against all the odds, Vinterberg has crafted a film that not only matches Schlesinger’s on every level, but also manages to be as rich and relevant as Hardy’s original text continues to be.