Saturday, May 23, 2015
Far from the Madding Crowd
There is an exhilaration to the beginning of Far from the Madding Crowd that’s best expressed in the eyes of the film’s star Carey Mulligan. Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdene, who as we find her is working on the farm of her aunt in the bracing English countryside. Bathsheba is aware of her modest circumstances, but the physical labor of the farm and the freedom of riding a horse over the hills has given her a joy and an awareness of her own agency. My favorite moments in Far from the Madding Crowd, directed by Thomas Vinterberg from Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, came in these early scenes. Carey Mulligan uses her natural expressiveness to great effect, as in the smile she gives as she walks away from her first meeting with neighboring farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). Oak will be the first man to propose marriage to Bathsheba, but a reversal of fortune will soon change the way each thinks of the other.
As good as Carey Mulligan is as Bathsheba, the film around her can’t quite pull off being more than a pretty period piece. (The gorgeous cinematography is by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who never over lights the numerous nighttime scenes.) The plot turns come heavy and swift, and the film at times feels rushed to a slightly ridiculous degree. When Bathsheba becomes attracted to the soldier Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) her attraction comes almost as a surprise. Can the heady woman we’ve seen become a successful farmer - after an inheritance gives her property - really be won over by Troy’s swordplay?
It is worth mentioning that the 1967 film of Far from the Madding Crowd directed by John Schlesinger is almost an hour longer than the new adaptation, and Bathsheba’s seduction by Troy is one of a few places where I wanted Vinterberg to have let things breathe. The famous 1967 scene where Terence Stamp’s Troy dazzles Julie Christie’s Bathsheba with his swordsmanship is here shot with too many close ups and a lack of the tactile quality that’s one of the new film’s strengths. Vinterberg makes us believe working on a farm entails backbreaking labor, and he gets the feeling of night in the country or a coming storm just right. The sword scene is a busy moment in a too fast film, but at least there’s Carey Mulligan to set things right. Her stillness after receiving Bathsheba’s first kiss is a counterintuitive acting choice, but it only points out just how much of the character’s life is still unsettled.
If the men of Far from the Madding Crowd were more compelling then the film might have transcended the melodrama that the plot evokes. Schoenaerts is physically right for the role and appropriately stolid, but there’s not enough wit or anger in the character and the performance is finally too flat. Sturridge never seems like more than a brat, and there’s also Michael Sheen as a suitor who offers Bathsheba financial security. Sheen is good - his manic desire for Bathsheba is rather touching - but he is onscreen the least of the three men. For too much of the film it feels like Bathsheba is being thrown together with suitors instead of making choices, and that quality finally betrays Mulligan’s excellent performance. Still, Mulligan’s work is strong enough to reclaim Bathsheba as a pre-feminist heroine and to remind us that this choosy actress is one of our biggest screen talents.