Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)

Matthias Schoenaerts and Carey Mulligan nuzzle in the Dorset countryside.

Matthias Schoenaerts and Carey Mulligan nuzzle in the Dorset countryside.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Tilly Vosburgh, Juno Temple, Jessica Barden, Bradley Hall, Hilton McRae, Sam Phillips, Victor McGuire, Jody Haise, Pauline Whitaker, Belinda Low, Leonard Szepietowski, Harry Peacock, Mark Wingett, Dorian Lough, Jon Gunn, Richard Dixon, John Neville, Lillian Price. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

In Victorian England, women didn’t generally have very many choices and those that did usually got them because they were stronger and more aggressive than most. Perhaps that’s why most Victorian heroines remain role models for women even today.

Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan) is an educated, forthright young lady who loves the rural Dorset that she grew up in. She also loves horseback riding and it is during one of her rides that she encounters neighboring shepherd Gabriel Oak (Schoenaerts), a quiet man of good character. He falls hard for the impetuous young Bathsheba (who hates her given name by the way) and impulsively asks her to marry him, promising to buy her a piano if she does. She declines, telling him that she would want a man who could tame her and the quiet Gabriel never could. Shortly after that Gabriel loses his flock in a particularly devastating way and must sell his land in order to pay his debts. He sets out to find employment. In his travels he comes upon a barn fire and with the farm manager and owner both missing, takes charge and puts the fire out. When the owner returns and thanks him, he asks for a job. The owner turns out to be…Bathsheba.

In the meantime she had suffered a reversal of fortune of her own; no longer poor, she had inherited her uncle’s farm and was determined to make it successful. After firing her corrupt and useless manager (McGuire) she sets about managing her farm with the aid of Liddy (Barden), her assistant and Gabriel’s able stewardship it begins to turn a profit.

She also gets the notice of William Boldwood (Sheen), a neighboring farmer and the wealthiest man in the district. Lonely and socially awkward, he had been engaged once only to be jilted. Now mistakenly thinking that Ms. Everdene is interested in him romantically, he pursues her doggedly with his own offer of marriage and as a wedding gift, a piano. By this time however, she has a piano of her own and declines, valuing her independence too much.

But not for long. Into her life comes soldier Frank Troy (Sturridge), a dashing young man who dazzles her with his swordplay and ardor. Completely head over heels, she marries the military man even though Gabriel counsels her not to and loses his job because of it, only returning to work because the sheep are dying from a disease that only he knows how to cure.

It soon becomes evident that Troy has no interest in farming and less in Bathsheba. He prefers to gamble their profits away, and his ardor is reserved for Fanny Robbin (Temple) whom he had once intended to marry and had been left standing at the altar when she went to the wrong church. She is now pregnant with his child. All of these events are priming the players for tragedy and for Bathsheba Everdene, a choice – which man truly is the one for her?

This is the fourth filmed version of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel (the first released exactly 100 years ago in a silent version). In many ways, it captures the rural life that Hardy so loved (and through him, his characters) better than any of them. Certainly cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen captures the loveliness of the Dorset countryside in vista after vista; silky mist-shrouded mornings, blazing colorful sunsets, bucolic woods and fields.

Vinterberg (The Hunt) is best known as a co-founder of the influential but spare Dogme 95 movement in filmmaking and he would seem an odd choice for a lush classic of such epic sweep as Hardy but he keeps much of the movie simple. The country life that he depicts here seems almost heavenly; one could long for a lifestyle of washing sheep and harvesting grain, walking the country at dusk and singing with the farmhands at supper by candlelight. It is definitely enticing to those of us beset by the fast pace and cold technology of modern life.

Mulligan, Oscar nominated ] for An Education, has done the most brilliant work of her career thus far here. She captures the spirited nature of Bathsheba Everdene but also her vulnerabilities without making her seem too modern, although in many ways Bathsheba belongs more to the 21st century than the 19th, even back when Hardy wrote her – so much so that Suzanne Collins filched her surname for her spunky lead character in The Hunger Games. That Bathsheba chooses the dashing soldier over the security of William Boldwood and the bedrock but unspectacular love of Gabriel Oak is a lament that many guys, unable to compete with the cute and the popular in high school, can understand.

Schoenaerts is a Belgian hunk who has all kinds of upside. He reminds me a bit of Viggo Mortensen and has that charisma necessary to be the leading man in a big budget movie and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find him on the Hollywood A-list before too long. Sheen has continued his exemplary work of recent years and makes the haunted farmer Boldwood flesh and blood, as opposed to the kind of creepy pervert that Peter Finch portrayed him as in the 1967 version.

While it’s possible this could be contending for awards come Oscar time, it’s unlikely given the early summer release date. It’s quite possible that an autumn re-release might put Mulligan, Christensen and even Vinterberg up for Oscar consideration but even if not, this is a film worthy of attention even beyond the film buff and older audiences. I have to admit that it is a smart move to use this as refreshing counterprogramming to the big blockbusters that will be filling up the multiplex screens this time of year. Those who prefer their movies less loud and teen-centric should keep their radar out for this one.

REASONS TO GO: Really gives a sense of the beauty of rustic life. Mulligan is a strong lead. Classic story.
REASONS TO STAY: Adds little to previous film versions of the novel.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mulligan suffered a concussion when she was thrown from a horse. Nobody realized she was injured until she fell to her knees during the next scene to be filmed. Schoenaerts thought she was acting and continued his lines; it was only when she slumped over that anyone realized that there was something wrong.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wuthering Heights
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Child 44

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