Don’t be fooled by the fancy source material: ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ may be adapted from Thomas Hardy’s nineteenth-century novel, but it’s still a movie that opens with Carey Mulligan on a pony as it gallops toward a rainbow. Set in a patch of rural England that seems to be located somewhere between ‘Downton Abbey’ and Danielle Steel, this new version runs a full 40 minutes shorter than John Schlesinger’s 1967 film but feels packed with twice the marriage proposals, longing looks and reversals of fortune.
A headstrong country girl who’s ‘too wild to be a governess’, Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan) is introduced via the doe-eyed stares of strapping local sheep farmer, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts, fast becoming today’s answer to Fabio). He offers her his hand and a comfortable life. But Bathsheba rebuffs him (‘I’d hate to be some man’s property’), only to inherit a fortune while Gabriel loses his. It isn’t long before she’s moved up in the world and he’s her employee, their silently mutual lust simmering in the background as Bathsheba meets a host of new admirers, including the bitter Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge) and the rich, introverted William Boldwood (Michael Sheen).
Director Thomas Vinterberg (‘Festen’) has always enjoyed thumbing his nose at stuffy film conventions, and while he’s clearly enchanted by Hardy’s book, his movie is so much fun precisely because he’s keen not to give it too much respect. This soap opera eventually gets so frothy that some of Bathsheba’s suitors are lost amid the suds (and the gorgeous cinematography). But Mulligan’s commanding performance is an easy beacon to follow: her Bathsheba is caught between the vulnerability of youth and the strength of knowing her own value. Troy is a slimy, proto-hipster scamp, but it’s a pleasure to watch Bathsheba weigh his vanity against Oak’s more earthy charms and suss out which of them is more real to her. ‘Beggars can’t be choosers,’ someone tells Bathsheba, but the lively period piece that Vinterberg builds around her gets to have it all.