Far From The Madding Crowd (12A) | Close-Up FIlm Review

Dir. Thomas Vinterberg, UK/US, 2015, 119 mins

Cast:  Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge,

Review by Carol Allen

When Thomas Hardy’s novel “Far From the Madding Crowd” was published in 1874, his central character, Bathsheba Everdene, must have been a startlingly unusual heroine.  Far from being a simpering beauty, like other Victorian fictional heroines who have survived, such as Jane Eyre and Catherine Earnshaw, Bathsheba is a woman for all seasons.

Unusually for the times, she is an independent woman with her own property – the farm she inherits and which she chooses to manage herself.  At a time when a woman and her property automatically both became chattels of her husband, it is not surprising that Bathsheba, played here by Mulligan, is reluctant to marry.

She has three suitors. Farmer Gabriel Oak (Schoenaerts), whose proposal of marriage she rejects early on but who then becomes her loyal and supportive friend.  Rich and much older landowner William Boldwood (Sheen), who offers her material comfort and protection. But despite Bathsheba’s desire to protect her independence, it is the glamorous Sergeant Francis Troy (Sturridge) with whom she falls in love and marries – with disastrous results.

Director Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls take on a challenging task here, when so many people still remember John Schlesinger’s 1967 film of this book.  And they largely rise to the challenge of making a version for today, particularly in the casting of Mulligan, who gives us a strong willed independent woman very acceptable to the 21st Century but still with the fatal flaw of mistaking sexual passion for love.

The film covers all the main points of the story and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christenson’s photography makes the most of the beautiful West Country landscape.  Where the film perhaps falls short though is in its lack of the sexual chemistry the earlier film achieved between Bathsheba and her three suitors, particularly in her relationship with Troy. The young Terence Stamp in the earlier film, his voice coloured by Cockney vowels, is literally sex in a scarlet tunic and the iconic scene, where he demonstrates his swordsmanship to Bathsheba, zings with sexual tension with Troy’s sword the ultimate phallic symbol. Vinterberg perhaps in an effort to make that scene different sets it in an enclosed glade as opposed to on the hillside and it seems much tamer for that enclosure.  Sturridge as Troy seems more the product of a minor public school who has failed to achieve the military rank of his class – he lacks the sense of danger, manipulation and youthful arrogance that Stamp brought to the role.

Where he is most effective is in his relationship with his first love, the unfortunate Fanny Robbin, touchingly played by Juno Temple.  His disappointment and hurt feelings early in the film, when he believes she has let him down, are one of the most effective aspects of Sturridge’s performance.

Schoenaerts as Gabriel is strongly dependable and Sheen touching as the lovelorn middle aged Boldwood, disappointed in his hopes for happiness.

One of the criteria for being cast in the film must have been the ability to ride a horse, as all the main characters spend a lot of time on horseback with the wind in their hair galloping across that gorgeous landscape, giving the story a visually effective sense of movement.

Schlesinger’s film is to be released shortly on DVD, so it will make an interesting comparison in terms of how a period drama reflects the era in which it is made. Those of us who remember that earlier version may of course be seeing it through the rose tinted spectacles of time. And meanwhile this good looking cinema retelling of the novel is an excellent introduction to Hardy’s work for those unfamiliar with it, while not offending existing lovers of the book.