From the first few frames, Thomas Vinterberg’s FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD clearly sets out its mission statement. Bathsheba Everdeen rides alone through the sprawling ‘Wessex’ countryside, dressed in entirely un-ladylike jodhpurs – it is apparent that she is not your average Victorian woman. She is free in mind and spirit, and it is in these moments that she catches the eye of Gabriel Oak, a local shepherd. From that moment on I was hooked, but couldn’t shake the feeling that this was not going to be an easy romance. Now I am ashamed to say I have not read Hardy’s perennial work, nor have I seen John Schlesinger’s 1967 film, so I had really no point of reference before I stepped into the cinema. I went in blind, with only a small knowledge of some kind of countryside love triangle/square.Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) inherits her uncle’s farm, and decides to run it herself, much to the dismay of some of the farm workers and towns people (Gosh! A Woman? Running a whole farm? How absurd.) She hires Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) to work on the farm, a man she had previous turned down a marriage proposal from who has lost his own farm. A jovial valentine to the neighbouring farm owner and eligible bachelor William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) results in another marriage proposal, which again she declines. She truly believes she does not want to, nor does she need to marry. It’s not until she meets charismatic Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge) that marriage enters her mind. The film follows Bathsheba’s decisions to pursue whatever she wants, yet she never feels selfish or conceited. She is a woman simply going after what she desires, not what is expected of her, much to everyone’s shock. Written by author and screenwriter David Nicholls, the film remained gripping throughout its full two hours, that is not to say it was without faults.
The film felt altogether rushed. Despite having no prior knowledge of the story even I could tell that large chunks were being missed out. I’m not saying Nicholls did a bad job, I think his understanding of the story and the parts that were most crucial were excellent (that man sure knows how to run a love story) but this was all too apparent; that we, the audience, were seeing just the key moments and not the smaller, more intimate points of the story that would have helped round some of the supporting characters better. It felt as if the entirely film had taken place over a period of six months, rather than the years in which it actually occurred. Another flaw (for me) was the music or lack thereof. The absence of grandiose music gave the film realism, often lost in most period dramas. But with this, a lot of the romanticism is lost too.
While Schoenaerts does a decent job of looking stubborn, quietly strong and yet unselfishly devoted, as Oak should be, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was entirely wrong for this role. Perhaps it was the Belgian twang to his accent (which was utterly distracting). Whatever the case, I felt this was a character someone could have really sunk their teeth into and I don’t believe Schoenaerts is that man. Charming yet slimy, Sturridge proves a dab hand at winning Bathsheba’s heart as Sergeant Troy. Just goes to prove that even the most progressive women are still a sucker for a man in uniform. Although his performance is good, there is just something I find unlikeable about Sturridge, which just made him (again, for me) seem like the villain of the story. Perhaps this was due to his lack of screen time, or maybe he was underwritten (or maybe Sturridge and his wiry moustache is just damn creepy).
Personally, I think Michael Sheen is pretty perfect in everything he does and this was no different, he took Nicholls words and Hardy’s clear depiction of Boldwood’s character and made it his own, in a brilliant way. Tip-toeing the line between weird and endearing, his advances towards Bathsheba seemed genuine and sweet despite his almost obsessive nature. Yet, again, the end of Sheen’s character’s story felt rushed.
However the real star of this film, the goddess of this epic love story is Mulligan. She occupies 97% of the film and yet you never tire of seeing her, because she simply commands every scene she is in. Her believability and girlish beauty are just a joy to watch on-screen. She carries the weight of this heavy film with ease, a film which without her would cease to be watchable. She is entirely beguiling and wonderful (did I mention that I love her?!)
Next to Mulligan, the West Country vistas are the other star. Vast and beautiful, Vinterberg displays them in all their glorious forms: Moody yet hopeful during the dawn fog; dark and sultry in the blackened night-time forests; and bright and hopeful for the final scenes. We watch as the land greatly affects the mood of each scene, one in particular that stands out is the infamous scene between Troy and Bathsheba, in which he demonstrates his swordsmanship, an entirely erotic and phallic display. The mile-high ferns play a focal point of the shot, tall and imposing whilst hiding these young lovers away from unwanting eyes, emphasising the underlying sexual nature of this scene. Vinterberg has said that the film absolutely had to be shot on location (in Dorset) and you can see why. The film was intentionally moved from its original time period to the 1880s for aesthetic reasons, namely so Mulligan wasn’t swamped by layers upon layers of crinoline. Silhouettes were smooth and fabrics practical, to reflect Bathsheba’s ‘get to it’ nature, always keen to muck in and fix problems herself, and the fashion choices had to reflect this.
Bathsheba, despite being depicted in a nineteenth century world, represents and wholly modern woman, hence why a remake was so worthwhile. She has the right to choose, to change her mind and then choose again. To think fiercely with her mind but ultimately follow her heart. She is strong and brave but fragile and naïve, and she is everything a great character, and a great woman should be.
The Final Word: An ok film with a good heart.