Thomas Vinterberg’s (The Hunt) adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel Far from the Madding Crowd is absolutely enchanting, a delight of the senses, and an emotional journey. I decided to read the novel after watching the film (tears of joy streamed down my face as the end credits began to roll), and I was struck by the faithfulness of Vinterberg’s vision. Vinterberg’s dazzling Wessex landscapes and appreciation of Hardy’s rustic imagery and meticulous detail to flora fulfill Hardy’s world on a visual level, and even realizes Hardy’s astronomical detail.
Carey Mulligan (Shame, Drive) is perfect (isn’t she always?) as Bathsheba Everdene, a strong, independent, and exciting female lead (not to mention gorgeous!). The story goes that Bathsheba inherits her uncle’s property and becomes emotionally entangled with three suitors – one good, one bad, and one impossible. As my colleagues have mentioned, Mulligan’s Bathsheba is much more egalitarian and less coquettish than in the novel (although there’s still that infamous Valentine’s Day card sequence). I love how she challenges authority in this patristic society, breaking free from the ghostly shackles of the past, and Vinterberg really supports her narrative and gives voice to her character. The book (with some deviations) focused on Gabriel Oak’s narrative, but here, we experience Hardy’s world as Bathsheba lives it – the struggles, the Hardyean misfortune, the heartbreak, and the rediscovery of dormant passion. Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead) seems unlikely as Oak, particularly with his clearly non-English accent and the fact that he looks too good. His rugged handsomeness runs the risk of offsetting the emotional relationships in the film, such as his proposals to Bathsheba, but Vinterberg overcomes this, depicting his proposals as too hasty. His acting is stellar as well, and the scene where he loses all his sheep has such anguish and emotion that there is an instant affinity between his misfortune and our own.
Tom Sturridge (On the Road) is excellent as the despicable Sergeant Frank Troy (or Sergeant Scumbag, as I like to call him). I like how Vinterberg portrayed his character, at first depicting him somewhat sympathetically when Fanny mistakes their wedding chapel and misses it completely – in the book, there’s a harsh dialogue between them that instantly reveals Scumbag’s repulsiveness, but here, his despicable nature is revealed through gradual exposition. Indeed, Scumbag is the worst type of human being – arrogant, condescending, abusive, and misogynistic, discarding women as he pleases. His handsome and seemingly charming mannerisms mask his great evil, and his swordmanship is a performance for his seduction. Thinking about the promotional artwork featuring Troy and Bathsheba kissing in the forest, I suppose it links directly to the irony of the novel/film’s title, taken from the Thomas Gray poem, which indicates that chaos and drama stir far from the madding crowd despite its promises of peace and reflection. Troy’s disorder and erratic behaviour epitomise that theme. In the film, Fanny claims that she misheard the name of the chapel (All Souls’ rather than All Saints’). The book further explains Fanny’s fatal mistake, but still, how on EARTH do you mix up the chapel for your own wedding?? Scumbag seems to love Fanny more in death than in life, and ironically, what he eventually desires most he cannot have. In his narcissistic quest, he hurts everyone around him – he is a toxic force. Speaking of Fanny, I loved Juno Temple (Horns, Killer Joe, The Dark Knight Rises; another celebrity crush of mine) as Fanny Robbin. She looks so innocent, so loving, and the tragedy for me of the novel and film was watching the destruction of her character. She was too naive, too trusting in the unforgiving forces of nature to survive in Hardy’s world, too easily corrupt by Sergeant Scumbag’s indifference and charming façade. One wonders this though: if he treated Bathsheba like shit during their marriage, how would he have treated Fanny? Perhaps there is no happy ending for Fanny. Although she dies, at least she dies with hope and love in her heart.
I also really enjoyed Michael Sheen as William Boldwood, Bathsheba’s middle-aged, increasingly frustrated and borderline unhinged neighbour, who yearns for female companionship, hoping to end the bachelor lifestyle he has always known. Boldwood is charming, wealthy, kind, and fair to all, but he is too desperate, too needy, and we really sympathise with his character. Hardy expressed it so well in dialogue, and in the film, this experience is enhanced. You can see the weariness on his face, his persistence/obsession with marrying Bathsheba, and her fierce and admirable desire for independence. The visual medium that the film presents chronicles Boldwood’s gradual descent into madness, and Sergeant Troy’s return from the dead and inappropriate behaviour is the final trigger, setting him off with irrevocable consequences, crossing the Rubicon. It was a very effective artistic decision.
I was drawn to the emotions of this film, they really tap into fundamental human relationships, and none of this Jane Austen tripe. Thinking about other Victorian literature, I really enjoyed Jane Eyre as well, but the relationship between Jane and Lord Rochester seemed more entertaining than romantic to me. Bathsheba and Gabriel Oak and all the trials and tribulations that come between them – that is a romance to remember, and no Mr Darcy lurking in the shadows. The scene at the end where she chases after him on horseback (so hot!) had me on the edge of the seat, and everything felt complete when he finally kissed her (about time). I was also drawn to the striking cinematography as well as the rich, captivating soundtrack (the theme is beyond compare, and Carey sings so beautifully – a truly mellifluous voice). Far from the Madding Crowd is a vivid, fully realized portrait of a great literary work. Vinterberg handles the source material so well, and the cast breathe such exciting life into the characters. I wish Thomas Hardy was still alive to see it.