“Far From the Madding Crowd” Review: How to Please a Crowd (Without Standing Out)
When Thomas Hardy wrote Far From the Madding Crowd in the 1870s, London’s population was over 3 million. Today its metro population is over 13 million. To get as far away from that crowd today as Hardy’s characters did a century and a half ago would require not only a trip to the countryside but a journey back in time. Filmgoers can take that journey, if only for a couple of hours, by virtue of an unexceptional but perfectly pleasing adaptation by director Thomas Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls.
The opening text of Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd tells us where we are with an unusual degree of specificity: not just the county, but its distance from London, some 270 miles. The improbably-named Bathsheba Everdene (perhaps a distant relation of Katniss Everdeen, and just as independent, a word she often uses to describe herself) is here on holiday. Carey Mulligan’s expressive face reveals Bathsheba’s playful charm and unspoken longings. Near her temporary home is a sheep farm managed by Gabriel Oak, stoic and strong as his name suggests. The actor, Matthias Schoenaerts, has a Ryan Gosling face on a Vin Diesel body, and these obvious selling points are augmented by Gabriel’s kind way with animals and unfailing politeness to Bathsheba.
It is not meant to say anything about him, then, when Bathsheba refuses his hasty marriage proposal. It is meant to place the focus on her defining characteristic — her conscious decision to remain independent for as long as possible, which might be forever unless a situation emerges in which the deviant thing to do (by 19th-century standards) would be to marry. More fundamentally, “no” is the inevitable first response to a suitor in the ever-compelling genre of Victorian moralistic melodrama, which includes such earlier titles as Pride and Prejudice. A “no,” in this context, sets up the possibility of changes of heart, misunderstandings, love triangles, infidelities — things readers and audiences have always gravitated toward in fiction.
Far From the Madding Crowd contains the familiar elements, but on a lower order of quality than that which elevates similar, more beloved works from Jane Austen and the Brontës. The characters here are one-dimensional and not particularly likable. The misunderstandings they suffer — a wrong street address, a joke that gets out of hand — feel ad hoc, and the consequences they bring about are beyond credulity. A young woman’s transformation into a beggar is not at all believable on screen, though it may work on the page when she can be imagined without the makeup and hair that mark her as anything but the serving-class sort she is supposed to be. The explanation for a lost character’s sudden reappearance rings equally false, and the transformation of a jilted lover into a monster is appropriate to the theme of rejection but muddy in execution. The script tries to sell the more radical twists through exposition, but belabored explanations only call attention to the problem.
Mulligan is sufficiently mercurial that her character seems to have some control over the story rather than just being pushed and pulled by Hardy’s plot, but her costars Schoenaerts and Tom Sturridge, who plays a young British sergeant, are just going through the motions. Michael Sheen, who plays an older suitor of Bathsheba, is more real: his emotions seem to well up from within an actual mind, as opposed to being imposed by the demands of a genre.
So it is not the best of its kind, but Far from the Madding Crowd is certainly enjoyable both as an entry in a long tradition and as a standalone film. Vinterberg shows his directing chops early on with a disturbing animal scene that cannot be unwatched. Not that I want to; it is the bravest visual in the movie, symbolic but not heavy-handedly so, and Vinterberg cleverly refers to it again throughout the movie. Later, a scene in a church is paralleled by a similar scene in a forest, and good use is made of reverse tracking shots and extreme close-ups. The look of the film, and its violin-based soundtrack from Craig Armstrong, somehow feel fresh even when the plot smells musty.
Far From the Madding Crowd may not rocket up the charts, but it’s a safe bet you’ll enjoy it if you liked the following similar titles.
Far From the Madding Crowd vs. Pride and Prejudice
I love the novel Pride and Prejudice, and because of that love I have purposefully avoided seeing the 2005 screen adaptation. I will someday, when I’m ready. But if you’re a fan of it, or enough of an Austen buff that you felt compelled to see it, check out Far From the Madding Crowd and let me know how it stacks up.
Far From the Madding Crowd vs. Ryan’s Daughter
David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter is not usually considered among his best works, but I find its blend of politics, religion, and human drama extraordinarily compelling. Many of the character types seen in Far From the Madding Crowd are more fully, uniquely realized in Robert Bolt’s script for Ryan’s Daughter, and with mature performances from the likes of Robert Mitchum, Trevor Howard, and Sarah Miles.
Winner: Ryan’s Daughter
Far From the Madding Crowd vs. Only Yesterday
Victorian romances are mixed bags on the matter of strong women, and Far From the Madding Crowd follows suit by both praising and warning against Bathsheba’s independent streak. The more modern stories from Japan’s Studio Ghibli excel at creating three-dimensional women who confront and surmount difficulties without the moral baggage of the 19th century. Isao Takahata’s underseen anime masterpiece Only Yesterday follows a young woman who tires of her workaday life in Tokyo and takes to the countryside. Even in modern Japan, people sometimes want to get away from the crowd. While on vacation she meets a nice young farmboy, and as she looks back on her childhood through a series of flashbacks she considers whether to make the vacation permanent. This is a more carefully-observed and character-based tale than Far From the Madding Crowd, and more artful as well.
Winner: Only Yesterday