A Bathsheba for the Ages

Far from the Madding Crowd
(UK/USA, 119 min.)
Dir. Thomas Vinterberg, Writ. David Nicholls
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple.
Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdeen in Far from the Madding Crowd.
Fox Searchlight Pictures.

“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” –Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

“I am not a fool, you know, although I am a woman and have my woman’s moments.”also Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

Is there any character better suited to adaptation than Bathsheba Everdeen? The heroine of Thomas Hardy’s classic romance Far from the Madding Crowd is, as she herself says, a construct of a language chiefly made by men. Bathsheba nevertheless offers a significant literary milestone for strong female characters, but Hardy’s characterization of his resilient woman is itself a product of its time. Hardy, despite the best intentions of his novel, largely defines Bathsheba through the eyes of men. Fortunately, for contemporary audiences, Carey Mulligan’s excellent turn as the radiant Bathsheba does the classic justice while keeping the novel relevant.

It’s hard to imagine anyone surpassing the incomparable Julie Christie and her iconic performance in John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd, but Mulligan does it. In fact, she blows Christie right out of the water and that’s no small feat. This new take on Far from the Madding Crowd by director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) doesn’t re-write the book, but it thankfully gives the audiences a new reading, too, as Mulligan’s wonderful performance strips Bathsheba of the self-consciousness that often cripples her in Hardy’s novel.

This adaptation by screenwriter David Nicholls, the scribe behind 2012’s classical take on Great Expectations, effectively tightens the novel, focuses on the relationships and scenes that are the driving force of Bathsheba, and puts Hardy’s heroine at the centre of her own story. Most Maddings give Bathsheba a plum role while affording her three male suitors—shepherd Gabriel Oak, wealthy neighbour William Boldwood, and wily soldier Francis Troy—the majority’s share of words or screentime. Madding, however, is Bathsheba’s story and this adaptation gets it right.

The film takes considerable liberties with Hardy’s novel even though, superficially at least, it looks like a conventional by-the-book adaptation with its time and setting akin to those of the original text. This Madding offers a similar opening to both the book and to Schlesinger’s film with the modest proposal of marriage to Bathsheba by Mr. Oak (played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who seems more comfortable here than he does in a similar role in A Little Chaos) and their tragic reversal of fortune when Oak’s sheep go plummeting over the cliff and into the sea while Bathsheba inherits a farm of her own and leaves town. The sheep scene is just as arresting here as it is in the 1967 film, but whereas Schlesinger’s windswept film flies with the sheep in gorgeous aerial panorama shots by Nicholas Roeg, Vinterberg’s film makes Oak’s ill fortune quick, jarring, and almost inconsequential. The sheep run, jump, tumble, and splat as the stirring cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Hunt) creates a tragic visual poetry as the sheep hurtle into the morning light on the horizon. It’s a breathtaking scene and a strong dramatic hook for the ensuing romance between Oak and Bathsheba.

This Madding, like Schlesinger’s film, is a top-notch production with gorgeous cinematography that warms the heart with soft, moody sunlight and sweeping landscape shots. The music by Craig Armstrong is both mannered and lyrical, while the costumes by Janet Patterson (bringing more big hats à la Bright Star) are exquisite tailorings for the “Downton Abbey” crowd and ensure that Madding will find an audience in the latest trend in which everything old is new again. Everything old is new again, though, in this smart adaptation that beats the heart of book to a fresher pulse.

Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd takes Bathsheba’s love story with Oak as its central thread. Most scenes that define her, or show her gaining a strong hold on her burgeoning farm somehow bring them together. Their affection is mutual, as is their respectt. Other Bathshebas enjoy a distinct pleasure in toying with Gabriel—through Bathsheba’s right of power or her pride and vanity—but Mulligan’s does not. Just look at a few effortlessly conceived that play out so naturally that one thinks they’re ripped from a book that’s endured for over two centuries. One scene, for example, sees Bathsheba swallow her pride and go riding after Oak when she needs him to save her sheep. The old Bathsheba plays a game of hard to get, but this Bathsheba finds strength in confronting her own inadequacies as a leader and a lover. She grows with each turn, as does their love.

Another example, and perhaps a highlight scene in the film, comes when Mr. Boldwood (a first-rate Michael Sheen) strolls over and joins the celebratory supper to mark the recovery of the sheep. Ye olde Bathsheba is a calculating tease at her best when two potential suitors come to table, but instead of asking Gabriel to move and then take up his flute while she shares a duet with Mr. Boldwood, this smart, independent Bathsheba strikes up the piano all on her own. She regales the table with a rendition of “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” which appropriately enough is both a classic folk tune, a ballad by the hippie folk rock band Pentangle, and a playful foreshadowing of the downfall that ensues when suitor number three appears. Mulligan gives another fine vocal performance after her sultry "New York, New York" in Shame, and her Bathsheba is a captivating singer. Boldwood still interrupts her performance (Sheen has a good voice too), but this scene offers the beginning of his madness that leads to the film’s final tragedy with the new sense of impropriety that comes when he steals Bathsheba's tune.

Then there’s Troy (Tom Sturridge), Bathsheba’s third and final suitor. Far from the Madding Crowd differs most from Hardy’s novel and from previous versions with its characterization of this charismatic rapscallion. He still has his fling with Fanny (Juno Temple, terrific in a very small role) and he charms Bathsheba like a lovelorn schoolgirl, but this Troy isn’t the same flawed romantic interest à la Terrence Stamp with Julie Christie. Far from the Madding Crowd, appropriately, makes Troy far less likable and sympathetic than he’s been before. He’s wrong for Bathsheba, and Vinterberg and Nicholls’ adaptation furthers Hardy’s study of the foundation for a strong marriage by characterizing Troy as a drunk and a philanderer above all. Gone is his shrewd latter-act magic trick. His swordplay is far less seductive here than it is in Schlesinger’s adaptation, too. By moving his fateful trick with Bathsheba from the swooning hilltops to a grove tucked away from the crowd, Vinterberg stages the cutting of Bathsheba’s hair by the blade of Troy’s sword as a metaphorical rape: it’s a violation rather than a coup, and a fitting omen for what awaits our heroine.

Far from the Madding Crowd contrasts Bathsheba’s three prospective lovers nicely with the strong performances of Schoenaerts, Sheen, and Sturridge. Schoenaerts is humble, genial, and likable—appropriately masculine and modest to complement Mulligan’s contemporary Bathsheba, and they create a fine harmony that makes the pair feel like an ideal match the more the film progresses. Sturridge makes a good impression, too, in a part that consistently invites the viewer to dislike his character, but Troy isn’t without his redemption for Sturridge conveys his character’s ability to feel love and loss when he shares the screen with Temple. Sheen, finally, is excellent as Boldwood. He has the toughest act to follow given Peter Finch’s take on the character, and he gradually builds Boldwood’s fragile, troubled psychology as his unrequited love for Bathsheba grows into obsession. The performance calls for both subtlety and passion, and Sheen handily delivers both extremes.

Each of the actors plays to the various facets of Mulligan’s performance and Far from the Madding Crowd is her show above all. This Madding works best because Mulligan strips Bathsheba of her pride and vanity. This Bathsheba is excited by the adventure of exploring uncharted terrain, rather than being an overconfident fish-out-of-water. Mulligan’s Bathsheba is girlish, yet headstrong; confident and poised, but bubbly and endearing, too, as she perseveres in both labour and love. She infuses the film with a contemporary sensibility and owns every frame of the film. Mulligan delivers a Bathsheba for the ages and gives an early contender for the best performance of the year.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Far from the Madding Crowd opens in Toronto at the Varsity May 1 from Fox Searchlight Pictures.
It expands to Vancouver on May 8; Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal on May 15; and it opens wide on May 22.

Update: It moves to The Mayfair on Friday, May 29.