Prettiness eclipses passion in “Far From the Madding Crowd,” a new version of Thomas Hardy's novel about a farm woman and her three suitors. Still, the movie is an enjoyable, absorbing literary adaptation and romantic drama, thanks to a captivating heroine and a vibrant central performance.
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg (“A Celebration”) and scripted by David Nicholls, the film is a relatively faithful but overly streamlined adaptation of the 1874 novel, which is one of the sunniest works written by Hardy, whose name is synonymous with stories of crushing hardships and twists of fate.
Carey Mulligan plays Victorian-age country girl Bathsheba Everdene, whose independent spirit catches the eye of sturdily named and bodied shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) in hilly Dorset, England. Gabriel presents Bathsheba with a cute little lamb and a marriage proposal, which she turns down.
Reversals of fortune occur. Bathsheba inherits a farm. Gabriel loses his sheep and begins working for Bathsheba and remains devoted to her.
Meanwhile, Bathsheba, a capable, decent farm owner, also can be childish and thoughtless. An impetuous decision to send a valentine to wealthy, repressed middle-aged farmer Mr. Boldwood (Michael Sheen) causes him to mistakenly believe she desires him. He pursues her, and she considers marrying him, but her indecision and rival suitors cause him “terrible grief.”
Those rivals include Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a dashing but caddish soldier who, in fact, loves tragic servant girl Fanny (Juno Temple). Frank seduces Bathsheba with some erotic swordplay. Before long, the two are married and Frank is gambling away the money. Later, multiple passions collide at a Christmas party at Boldwood's mansion.
While on a par with director John Schlesinger's 1967 rendition of Hardy's novel, Vinterberg's shorter, more intimate version suffers from significant cuts made to the original story. A memorable passage in which the vanished Frank appears, disguised, at a fair, is noticeably absent. A lack of buildup undermines the credibility of Boldwood's climactic act.
And the film often gets too caught up in its pastoral beauty, at the expense of the emotional charge the story demands.
Still, Vinterberg's light but serious touch, Hardy's enduring material and Mulligan's performance give rise to an old-fashioned, eye-pleasing, big-screen romance that is at once filling and friendly.
Less ethereal and flirty than Julie Christie's Bathsheba, Mulligan anchors the film and stirs the viewer with her contradiction-filled, flesh-and-blood, dynamic portrait of a norm-busting Hardy heroine. And for anyone wondering: Yes, Bathsheba Everdene was a partial influence for Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen.
Far From the Madding Crowd
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts,Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge
Written by: David Nicholls
Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes