My relationship with Far From the Madding Crowd has always been one of admiration, particularly considering my general attitude towards period dramas, as they are usually a genre I tend to dismiss. The text, the one and only Thomas Hardy novel that I have read, has been adapted many times in the past, the most famous being the 1967 film version directed by John Schlesinger and starring Julie Christie as its lead, Bathsheba Evergreen. With a film adaptation held in high regard, why the need to remake, you may ask? Well, Hardy’s novel features a very strong and important figure in the form of Bathsheba, a head strong and resiliently independent woman caught within a time and struggling with customs designed and controlled by men. It makes perfect sense to want to introduce this character to a new generation of women as a symbol of resilience and strong will in the face of the patriarchy.
Taking place within the hills of the West Country, young woman Bathsheba Evergreen (Carey Mulligan) inherits her Uncle’s farm and sets out to make it one of the best and most regarded Farms in the area. She must avoid distraction, however, from three different men who all fall for her defiant character. There is the quiet yet dedicated farmhand Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), respected yet older Mr. Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and the younger, hot-headed soldier Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). Bathsehba must decide where her heart truly lies, and face the consequences of what those decisions may lead to.
Schlesinger’s film is iconic for its sumptuous cinematography and the lead performance from Julie Christie. Likewise, this update, directed by The Hunt‘s Thomas Vinterberg thrives with vibrant cinematography. There is nary a frame which doesn’t dazzle in regards to its texture and colour palette, with nearly every image worthy of being hung above a fireplace for all to enjoy. The modest yet captivating locales of the West Country have never looked better than in this framing of Hardy’s work, which makes the full most use of the Dorset and Somerset locations throughout the different seasons to present images of startlingly, yet uncomplicated, beauty.
Strength also lies within the performances on display, as Mulligan makes Bathesheba as much as her own as Julie Christie did back in the 60s. Mulligan looks more fragile on screen than Christie, and it seems to be an element of herself that she is very aware of, as her soft features allow for a very dynamic performance to flourish, capable of being both vulnerable and strong , allowing for the natural strength of character to shine through. Schoenaerts adopts a very convincing English accent to deliver a very sympathetic performance, which is very much pivotal to the story, as he shines against the admittedly strong casting of Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge. Sheen is given less screen-time but perhaps the more interesting back story of any of the suitors so it is a shame that we don’t see him come into the fold more than we do. Sturridge gives a convincing air of cockiness and over-eagerness as the young hot-headed Sergeant, and does a great job of ensuring that the iconic fencing swordplay flirtation pulses with sexual tension.
Where the film falters, and funnily enough it is where every adaptation of this particular novel falters, in in the story itself. It is all fairly low key, which much of the satisfying drama coming from seeing Bathsheba poke fun and transcend the patriarchy. It is at these moments that the film really holds its strongest motives, and as well as when it strikes the best chord with its audience, and also allows for much of the humour to come to the fore. However, some of Bathsheba’s actions are quite questionable (flip-a-book? Really?) and often distract one from the narrative itself. Vinterberg struggles to stage much else of the drama in that engaging a fashion. Yes, the images look brilliant, but Vinterberg trips up quite a few times when it comes to constructing an ending that truly resonates. The performances certainly ensure that we’re still interested by the somewhat melodramatic events that colour the final act, but the lack of palpable tension and pacing unfortunately result in a flat finale.
I much prefer this adaptation to the 1960s version, if only because it’s nicer to look at, but its cast is equally, if not more, compelling. Vinterberg is a director who really does care for the image, as there is nary anything in frame that doesn’t need to be there; there is so much visual richness here to bask in, amounting in one of the more aesthetically pleasurable cinematic offerings so far this year.