A nobleman, a commoner and a soldier walk into a bar. There sits a property-owning, curly mopped brunette beauty. Which man does she choose to marry? Such is the premise of Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic 1874 romance novel; a 512-page amorous yarn, turned into a dramaturgical 107-page script, turned into a 119-minute film. In simplifying the story, good sense is tangled in expedited character arcs and though less plodding than many coattail and gown costume dramas, Far From the Madding Crowd is at best a handsomely photographed venture back in time and at worst a perfunctory, sloppily told bore.
As hot as an exposed ankle in 1870, Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) is a feminist champion amongst old-fashion cods. Her free-wheeling ways are as accented as Beast’s Belle, which we see manifested in her willingness to hop in the slop and give lambs a good spanking to get a move on. “My lord, but what about your dress?” When she shoots down marriage proposal numero dos, you can almost hear the townswomen tittering, “Can you believe she didn’t marry that man?” Titter, titter.
But let’s back up in time. Before Bathsheba becomes a certified landowner and town-wide hot topic, she was naught but a lowly farm girl, her only holdings being her education and her sharp wit. Neighbor farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), upon retrieving her red scarf from the woods – Oh! Red! In June! How scandalous! – wastes little time in trying to secure a marriage. It’s your average “boy meets girl, boy proposes to girl, boy’s dog chase his sheep off cliff, boy loses farm, girl inherits farm, boy works at farm” saga.
English costume romances such as these thrive on their performances and none here disappoint. Mulligan offers up some of her finest work – a nuanced and lively portrait of a woman ahead of her time. Her inner workings are like a skeleton watch; her eyebrows flock hither and thither with each dutifully charged enunciation; her faint smile is a beguiling jewel. And magical though her work may be, it doesn’t prove enough to camouflage the bigger issues at play.
Take for instance Bathsheba’s romance with Mr. Oak – who might I say looks confusingly like a hot Charlie Kelly. Schoenaerts displays fierce subtly in his quiet, complacent role as Mr. Oak and in his own right is excellent as well but his chemistry with Mulligan is cursory at best. Considering that the weight of the film rests squarely on our investment in Mr. Oak and Bathsheba’s brewing romance, the fact that their entanglement is barely lukewarm makes everything else feel a touch soggy, soiled and businesslike. They have kind of a Luke ‘n’ Leia thing going on where you dread having to watch them kiss. For a romance, that’s a pretty huge problem.
Furthermore, they’re both kind of boring characters who like each other because the other one is equally boring. Everyone’s drinkin’ and dancin’ at the wedding? Best tend to heaps of hay!
No matter how fancifully dressed up it is – and believe me, from costumes to sets to cinematography, Far From the Madding Crowd is an appropriately distinguished visual feast – it cannot escape the Hollywood romance formula wherein we’re supposed to root for the centerpiece love story because they’re the sexy stars of the film and the sexy stars of the film are supposed to do it by the end. There’s certainly consolidation points earned for its free-spirited feminist lead – in addition to Mulligan’s apt performance – but that’s not enough of a cover job to disguise its disappointingly flat – and sometimes seriously head-scratching – narrative turns.
The most pronounced of which comes in the form of the character Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge) and his perplexing motivations. They prove particularly problematic in that his arc only makes sense if we regard him as a madman. His steadfast abandonment of former love Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple) works in and of itself but not in the context of his later developments with Bathsheba. Relationships like this may thrive on the page with much more time and care dedicated to them but on the screen, they just don’t make much sense at all old boy.
Vinterburg delivered a picture of staggering depth with The Hunt and unfortunately his vibrantly nuanced tendencies have all but disappeared here, like a children hiding beneath his mother’s dress. Though there’s much to like in Far From the Madding Crowd – especially Michael Sheen, props to Michael Sheen – there’s little to love.