Mark Reviews Movies

Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sexuality and violence)

Running Time: 1:59

Release Date: 5/1/15 (limited); 5/8/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 7, 2015

Watching a new adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel in 2015 is to be reminded that the template for romantic melodrama is much older than the stuff of contemporary Hollywood. It's present in Far from the Madding Crowd in the form of two people who are clearly destined for each other, a series of complications beyond the control of the inevitable lovers that divide them, and the constant reminder that a few words of unspoken honesty and affection would go far in avoiding the whole mess. One would be hard-pressed, though, to think of a Hollywood romance that features such grotesqueries as the sight of a flock of sheep taking a collective swan dive off a cliff or one of the romantic leads tearing the lid from a casket to reveal a dead woman cradling her lifeless newborn.

Even 140 years after the novel's first publication, we can appreciate the daring of some of the particulars of Hardy's narrative. There are the aforementioned scenes of horror. There's the scandal of pastoral life seen as a cesspool of sex, betrayal, and occasional violence (by the standards of Victorian morality, mind you).

Most importantly, there's the romantic heroine. She is an independent woman, named after a famous adulteress from the Bible, who not only succeeds in a man's world but also, much like her namesake, is (eventually) rewarded for ignoring society's standards. Granted, that reward arrives after much personal misery, a fair number of casualties, and accepting a traditional happy ending after spending years insisting she would do no such thing (In that last part, she is the spiritual forebear of so many female protagonists of Hollywood romances—the professional woman who just wants/needs a man to really find fulfillment).

It's difficult to think of a reason for this adaptation to exist, beyond the event of an arbitrary anniversary of the book's publication and the fact that it's been a while since the previous adaptation, and that perhaps says it best about this movie. The movie is dutiful, sure, in that the plot remains intact. Under the direction of Thomas Vinterberg, it's also striking from a visual standpoint, with wide shots of the English countryside at various times of the day and naturally lit interiors that often only allow us to see the bright faces of the characters.

A sense of duty and a desire to create pretty pictures, though, aren't exactly compelling reasons to mount a cinematic adaptation of a celebrated novel. This feels more like an obligation.

The heroine is Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), an orphan raised by well-to-do relatives, who has found contentment in living a rustic lifestyle on a farm 200 miles outside of London. She does the manual labor of the farm. She rides astride her horse. She speaks her mind. Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a neighboring shepherd, spots her while she's riding and is instantly taken by her way. After a few meetings, he proposes marriage, and she laughingly declines. She has no interest in marrying anybody.

Their fortunes turn—his for the worse, after the previously mentioned scene involving the sheep, and hers for the better, after she inherits her uncle's once-prosperous farm in a nearby village. Bathsheba plans to run the farm on her own and return it to its former glory. Gabriel wanders the countryside looking for work and ends up employed at her farm. Whatever affection he had for her must remain silent as Bathsheba is courted by two different men: the earnest and humorless William Boldwood (Michael Sheen, offering the movie's best performance as a vulnerable man who sees his last chance for happiness constantly elude him), who does nothing for her, and the roguish army officer Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), who excites her with his skill with his sword (surely a scandal).

The screenplay by David Nicholls hurriedly moves from one plot point to the next, providing little time for any of the characters to breathe before some new problem arrives to put a damper on their lives. As a result, the characters are solidly defined but vaguely colored. We expect this from our melodramas, so it's not too much of an issue in the big picture. It helps that the performances are strong, particularly Mulligan as a woman ahead of her time and Schoenaerts as someone who suffers in silence without succumbing to emotional martyrdom.

It might be easy to accept that the plot will take focus over the characters, but that doesn't make it easier to digest. The pattern (problem followed by temporary solution followed by more problems and less tenable solutions) becomes repetitive, since there's no buffer of significant character development or moments to prevent the plot from overwhelming all else (One, however, must also remember that the novel first appeared in serialized form, meaning Hardy would have been constructing his plot partially under the mindset of needing to compel readers to return month after month). It's never laughable, despite some of the more sensationalistic elements of the story, but it does become frustratingly simplistic.

That's unfortunate, because it's obvious that a lot of care has been put into this production. Far from the Madding Crowd is, perhaps, a victim of the passage of time. What was bold at the novel's inception is now commonplace in movie form.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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