Four’s a Crowd

Film-Lead-1519Hardy love quadrangle explored in ‘Far From Madding Crowd’

You might call Thomas Hardy’s 1874 literary classic “Far From the Madding Crowd” the grandfather (at least one of them) of the modern romance novel. (Along with just about anything written by the Brontë sisters.) Set in a wild, rural landscape—Dorset, in the West Country of England—Hardy’s story features a strong-willed, rule-breaking heroine loved by three very different men who play out the novelist’s recurring themes of love, class, passion and independence.

I was an impressionable teenager when I saw John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation of the novel with Julie Christie, Alan Bates, and Terence Stamp. I thought it was the most romantic movie I’d ever seen. I didn’t have quite the same rapturous response to the handsome new Thomas Vinterberg film of Far From the Madding Crowd. For one thing, I’m no longer a teen. For another, Schlesinger’s film was some 49 minutes longer than Vinterberg’s new version, and it’s difficult to compress the scope of Hardy’s 460-page book into a concise, digestible two hours. The plot points tick off right on schedule, but it sometimes feels as if there’s not enough time for the emotional weight of the events to fully resonate with the characters (much less the audience).

It’s too bad, because Danish filmmaker Vinterberg’s excellent last film, The Hunt, was all about emotional nuance. Still, working here from David Nicholls’ script, Vinterberg makes a beautiful piece of craftsmanship out of the film. The rolling green hills, rugged seacoast, and stone villages of Dorset (the film was shot almost entirely on location) look splendid and convey Hardy’s sense of place. And the cast is generally persuasive, with a particularly sturdy performance by Matthias Schoenaerts as the aptly-named Gabriel Oak, who becomes the backbone of the film.

Carey Mulligan is effectively cast as heroine Bathsheba Everdene. She’s not a conventional heartbreaker, but, orphaned at a young age, she’s been running her small family farm on her own ever since. Steady, plain-spoken Gabriel Oak buys a nearby farm for his sheep, and, taken with Bathsheba’s high spirits, proposes marriage, but she tells him she doesn’t want to be “a man’s possession.”

Their paths entwine again later, when she inherits a larger farm from her uncle, and shocks her staff and laborers by running the place herself, without a husband. When Gabriel loses his own place, and his flock (in a harrowing, heartbreaking scene), Bathsheba hires him to manage her sheep. He continues to care for her from afar as Bathsheba attracts the attentions of Mr. Boldwood (Michael Sheen), the wealthy, but awkward and lonely, 40-something bachelor farmer next door, and Sgt. Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge, last seen as the painter Millais in Effie Gray), a dashing and reckless cavalry officer.

It’s in the character of Troy and the subplot concerning him that the movie founders a bit. It’s plausible that Bathsheba might be swept away by the first taste of raw passion she’s ever known, a bit less certain that this independent-minded woman would be married to him within a few scant minutes of screen time, and utterly baffling that she’s regretting her decision (in a heart-to-heart with Gabriel) before the wedding feast is even over. It doesn’t help that the filmmakers can’t decide if Troy is simply a cad or a man wounded by a tragic former love affair. Sturridge gamely plays him either way, as the scene demands, but he can’t find anything deeper in the character than a certain pouty haughtiness.

On the other hand, Schoenaerts (the Belgian actor who partnered Marion Cotillard so well in Rust And Bone) imbues Gabriel with shading, depth and complexity. When the willfulness of Mulligan’s Bathsheba occasionally gets tiresome, Schoenaerts holds the film together. Sheen is excellent too, as an insecure man on the edge, struggling to keep up with more clever folk all around him. He and Schoenaerts have a great scene together toward film’s end where we suddenly feel intensely involved with both men and their fates.

With a little more time to explore such moments, this film could have been a roaring success. Still, it earns major points as an admirable and gorgeous literary adaptation.


*** (out of four)

With Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, and Tom Sturridge. Written by David Nicholls. From the novel by Thomas Hardy. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated PG-13. 119 minutes. PHOTO: Matthias Schoenaerts plays Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer in love with Bathsheba Everdene, played by Carey Mulligan in Thomas Vinterberg’s new version of ‘Far From the Madding Crowd.’

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