At first glance, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 Brit-lit classic Far from the Madding Crowd might seem like a strange career choice for director Thomas Vinterberg, he of former Dogme 95 leanings. Upon closer examination, however, his handsomely-mounted follow-up to 2012’s The Hunt shares many thematic similarities with that film, as well as his 1998 break-through Festen. All three concern people’s standings in their insular communities upended by chaotic circumstances, a few all too predetermined but most of them unpredictable twists of cruel fate.
Carey Mulligan plays Hardy’s heroine Bathsheba Everdene, a headstrong, orphaned young woman of no particular means (at least at first), who sees little compelling reason to settle down early with a male suitor she doesn’t truly love. The film, set in Victorian England, opens with her rejection of a clumsy marriage proposal on the part of neighbouring shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), and both their fates radically alter not long after. She becomes heir to a farming fortune, courtesy of an inheritance left by a deceased uncle. He, meanwhile, loses his livelihood via one of those aforementioned chaotic circumstances — his entire sheep flock takes a night time stroll over a cliff in the film’s earliest shock intrusion of blood into the largely beautiful frames.
Left on a lower social station, strange fate determines that Gabriel should end up working on Bathsheba’s new property towns away from the Dorset where he failed to woo her. Also trying to woo Miss Everdene are two other men of divergent backgrounds: William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a rich and rigid landowner often made the object of pity in the community, and younger rogue Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge), who imposes himself on Bathsheba in a more forceful manner than the other two suitors. Troy himself has been the recipient of rejection, as his sweetheart Fanny (Juno Temple) seemingly jilted him at the altar, though it turns out she genuinely had gone to the wrong church — that dastardly fate at it again.
Between the five key players comes marriage, betrayal, death and phallic sword-swinging. Vinterberg, screenwriter David Nicholls and the strong assembled cast give power to the melodrama by imbuing the characters with subtle, sensitive gestures. Mulligan is particularly excellent, offering a cooler, more prudent Bathsheba than Julie Christie, the most famous prior performer of the role.
Hardy’s novel has been adapted to film a few times, most notably with John Schlesinger’s star-studded 1967 version, but Vinterberg’s much shorter take never feels like a rushed, superficial interpretation despite excising so much of the source material. Far from the Madding Crowd is a uniquely intimate adaptation in its focus on accumulating small moments and emotions to provide spark to its characters. While many other films falter in being too faithful to a source material’s story beats (often turning characters into mere caricatures), Vinterberg’s approach conveys the depth of Hardy’s complex creations with the richness of its details, despite its streamlined nature.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently the managing film editor at Sound On Sight, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.