Strong performances and cinematography can’t save this book report
Visually flawless without much else to back it up, Thomas Vinterberg’s adaption of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far From the Madding Crowd is a cold and dry experience that shows some punch in the early stages but quickly descends into costume drama mediocrity. The story follows Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan, stellar as usual) as she negotiates her era’s version of the life/work balance which for her essentials boils down to running her inherited farm while also choosing between three gentlemen callers who are banging down her barn door trying to win her hand in marriage. The plot is twisty and unpredictable but also weighed down immensely by the norms of rural 19th Century England. So much of the narrative is based around the politics of land holdings and their insane bourgeois morality that there is very little to connect with on a minute-by-minute basis. And even if we strip away all the baggage provided by the time and place we are only left with a dusty old tale of a girl deciding whether to marry for love or money.
The opening act is clearly the strongest as we watch the unforgiving downfall of Gabriel Oak, aka suitor #1 (Matthias Schoenaerts), who very quickly morphs from respectable marriage option for Bathsheba (His pitch is basically “Here’s a lamb. Would you like to marry me?”) to her farmhand when their societal positions flip flop. The unimaginable misfortune which visits him one night is shot with delicious grandiosity by cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen and serves to whet the audience’s appetite for a movie that has no intention of showing up. Bathsheba finds herself suddenly in an enviable position when she inherits an estate from her uncle so beautiful that it left all the middle-aged ladies in my screening gasping in awe. She needs a shepherd (the old one sucked, trust me), and Gabriel, well, needs a job and so for a little while it is a perfect match.
Soon there are two more men in her life who succeed tremendously in complicating things for her. Michael Sheen continues his transition from Tony Blair roles into old privileged grump roles by playing Boldwood, her wealthy neighbor who tries to sell her on the idea of being a trophy wife while also running her farm (risk-free because they’d be rich!!). There is also the silly, effeminate Frank Roy (Tom Sturridge), a traveling soldier who, for some mysterious reason, Bathsheba reads as sexy. The chess match that ensues between the three of them is both over the top and a real drag to watch. The character’s actions are either cartoony and stereotypical or irrational and not worth believing. Normally I would be all for a lunatic soap opera but the madness is so flaccid that I felt as though I was watching Melancholia with all of the crazy drained out of it.
Not to trumpet my own ignorance but this is my first Vinterberg film and so I have no clue as to how it stacks up against the rest of his work. It seems to be made by a confident and skilled hand though I would argue that it doesn’t do enough to shake the mothball stink of the novel off of it. Professionally produced, beautifully shot costume dramas will always find an audience but there is something wrong when your entry into that genre gets outpointed by the severely diminished season five of Downton Abbey. There is also a nagging sense that Vinterberg’s main focus in modernizing this tale was on turning Bathsheba into a feminist icon for our time. In fairness she does do an admirable job running her farm (perhaps too admirable considering her lack of experience) but her ability to juggle and decide between her men leaves a lot to be desired. Look back and consider what it takes to finally win her heart. Then survey the path of destruction she leaves in her wake and ask yourself whether or not this is somebody to be admired and if Vinterberg does enough to hold her bad decision making tendencies accountable.
Director: Thomas Vinterberg Writer(s): David Nicholls, based on the Thomas Hardy novel Notable Cast: Carrie Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge