It’s difficult to accept, let alone believe, that Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt, Dear Wendy, The Celebration), the co-founder of the Dogme ’95 movement with Lars von Trier, an attempt to strip away decades of accreted narrative and stylistic filmmaking conventions to find or forge a path to a purer, presumably truer form of filmmaking, is the same director behind the middling, anonymous adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, Far From the Madding Crowd. Despite judicious pruning from screenwriter David Nicholls (Great Expectations, One Day, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Starter for 10) and a running time 50 minutes shorter than John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation (until now the definitive take on Hardy’s novel, if primarily for Julie Christie’s starring role), Far From the Madding Crowd offers little to distinguish it from Schlesinger’s more faithful take besides Carey Mulligan’s central performance, as layered and nuanced as anything she’s done in the past, and tactile location photography courtesy of cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Hunt).
When we meet Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), she’s impoverished, an orphan living on her aunt’s farm. She’s also proud, intelligent, educated, and independent, a combination that marks her as unique in19th-century England. Despite limited opportunities (an understatement given her choices of marriage or spinsterhood), she refuses a wedding proposal from a local sheep farmer, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), aptly named for his moderate temperament, introversion, and limited communication skills. His proposal sounds less like an offer of marriage than a business proposition (telling given the time period and setting). Bathsheba refuses and they part ways, their relationship seemingly at an end. In a reversal of fortunes typical of pre-20th-century literature, Gabriel loses his entire herd, relegating him to a common farmhand or day laborer, while Bathsheba inherits her late uncle’s entire estate, including a prosperous farm.
Chance and coincidence are just as typical of 19th-century British novels and Far From the Madding Crowd is no exception. Bathsheba and Gabriel cross paths again, he as an itinerant farmhand saving her farm from a fire and she as his new employer. Their differing social positions exclude the possibility of romance or marriage. While Gabriel continues to stand by Bathsheba’s side through the ups and downs of farming life, repeatedly proving his love for her, even occasionally speaking his mind, Bathsheba turns her attentions first to William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a wealthy, brokenhearted landowner who becomes predictably obsessed with her, and later with Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), an army officer of ill repute, forest fencer, and frequent mustache twirler. Contrary to her intelligence and independence, she chooses desire and passion over rationality and common sense, to predictably tragic results, predictable and tragic because again, Hardy was writing within certain narrative conventions even as he tried to subvert those conventions by giving his female characters agency and autonomy atypical for the time.
Far From the Madding Crowd ultimately sinks under those romantic conventions – or more accurately romantic clichés – completely foreseeable given the inherent limitations of Hardy’s novel. There’s little suspense or even tension as the characters move to their designated positions within Bathsheba’s orbit. They’re meant to represent, of course, the proscribed choices a woman of Bathsheba’s means and temperament had to face in the late 19th-century, but those choices have little, if any, bearing on the choices contemporary women face in Western societies. After all, Bathsheba has three choices, not four (the fourth being no choice at all), men of varying qualities and merits, leaving moviegoers little to do except mark time until Bathsheba works her way through the suitors for her attention before she awakens or self-actualizes to the one, “right” choice. By then, all that’s left is to wait (and wait) for the process of elimination, by chance or circumstance, to leave only one suitor for her romantic attentions standing (spoiler alert: It’s exactly who you think it is).
Vinterberg directs Far From the Madding Crowd with almost alarming anonymity. There’s nothing in the way Vinterberg shoots or edits Far From the Madding Crowd to suggest anything except a journeyman, a director-for-hire typical of the BBC’s prestige productions, albeit with a higher budget, a shorter running time, and an A-list actress, Carey Mulligan, at the center. To her considerable credit, Mulligan invests Bathsheba with grounded dimensionality and emotional complexity. Even the scenes that should play as high melodrama (e.g., anything with Troy) rarely do and when they do that’s primarily the result of Vinterberg’s inability to rein in the material or Sturridge’s watery-eyed performance as Troy, a character constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Sheen fares significantly better as the obsessive, self-destructive Boldwood. Schoenaerts’ minimalistic performance style suits his character. For all of their collective efforts, however, Vinterberg’s adaptation never answers a simple, basic question every book-to-screen adaptation should be able to answer: “Why?” Vinterberg’s adaptation can’t.