I must admit I’ve not read Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel, Far From The Madding Crowd. Had I done so before seeing the film I wonder if it would have affected how I interpreted the story and related to the characters?
I guess it doesn’t matter now.
I really just raise this point to say I went into this one fresh and with no knowledge. What I did know was that there hasn’t been a Carey Mulligan film (and performance) that I havent liked, from An Education to Shame to Drive, she’s never disappointed. In fact she’s often captivated and astonished me, she’s such a talent and holds the screen so well.
Despite this story being adapted for the cinema numerous times before (1915, 1967, 1998) I’ll assume that you’re like me and don’t know it, or at least want a refresher. We start with Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan); she meets hunky shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthius Schoenaerts) living nearby and, as must have been the way back in the 1870s, within five minutes he’s proposing to her. She knocks him back, being too much of a free spirit to be tied down to some random shepherd, however strong, silent and hunky he may appear to be.
She moves away and gets left an inheritance by an uncle, one which includes a huge farm that needs returning to former glories. Through some shoddy shepherding Gabriel loses his flock and is forced to look for new work. He stumbles on a farm on fire and helps out and lo and behold it’s Miss Everdene’s new place. And so they are reunited.
To keep things spicy he’s not the only man after her hand in marriage and following her around like a lost puppy. Through a bit of 19th century flirting she raises the interests of wealthy neighbour Mr Boldwood (Michael Sheen), but he’s just too tame for her tastes. She also meets caddish soldier Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) who turns her attentions for all the wrong reasons.
Plot wise it’s fairly simple, albeit a little infuriating. Bathsheba has three guys vying for her attention: one caring and loyal but beneath her social status, one wealthy and stable but a bit dull, and one wild and roguish but not a particularly nice man, to put it mildly.
I suppose I’m silently screaming inside – like no doubt many people before me down the years – that we all know which man she should go for, but we cannot always get what we want, or know what’s best for us – so she dances round and round. Even without knowing this story I knew the story, or hoped I knew how it would end.
Ultimately, it’s not so much about that though, it’s more about performances – and director Thomas Vinterburg was spoilt for choice with his cast. Michael Sheen gets the thankless task of making Mr Boldwood seem proud and noble, but completely unsure of himself when it comes to courting Bathsheba. His performance – as Boldwood unravels – is hugely impressive and heartfelt.
I’ve yet to see Rust & Bone, the film that put Matthias Schoenaerts on the map, but he’s got to be giving Tom Hardy a run for his money in the strong and silent category. As Gabriel Oak he says so much, often without saying anything at all. A consummate performance marking him as one to watch with interest in the future.
Then there’s Mulligan.
In other actresses’ hands Bathsheba could have come across as quite annoying; constantly doing the wrong thing, too proud, too stubborn, too blind when she has a good thing going. But the wonder that is Carey Mulligan keeps us on her side. She makes her likeable, wilful, headstrong, emotional, precocious – and she gives her depth and relatability. In short, she carries the film effortlessly and beautifully and was nigh on perfect for the role.
I suppose, if I had any issues at all, it would be that the film as whole felt a little safe at times. A little slow and sleepy – and a little sanitised. On a basic level, for example, when Bathsheba is working the fields in a few early scenes she has a small smudge of dirt on her cheek. To show she’s dirty. But it was a Hollywood smudge and I wanted more grit and realism.
This was a small indicator of a bigger problem. The film as a whole needed more fire, more blood and thunder. Being as clueless as to the original story as I am, maybe this was a faithful adaptation. But maybe – beyond the impressive performances from the leads – a bit of a modern spark was needed to really make it fizz and ignite.