Atmospheric and sweeping, Far From the Madding Crowd is a romantic drama featuring a rare beating heart, making the romance hard to come by, the drama understated, the heroine headstrong instead of sheerly dependent on love from the opposite sex. It watches the maturation of Bathsheba Everdene, a heroine any feminist would adore. She puts making a name for herself in her community first, ignoring the pressure most other women of the time faced to find a suitor quickly and immediately.
It is the fourth adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel of the same name, the most recent released in 1967 and starring Julie Christie. Though peddled as a classic by some, I am unfamiliar with its epic gestures. But 2015’s Far From the Madding Crowd, directed by the versatile Thomas Vinterberg, is good enough to stand on its own: It is sumptuously shot, incredibly acted, and timeless. And Carey Mulligan, among the great actresses of her generation, arguably gives the greatest performance of her career as the central heroine.
In Far From the Madding Crowd, the strong-willed Bathsheba begins as a farm worker cared for by her aunt; to get her hands dirty, to live independently, thrill her. Our first impression of our protagonist is of her riding a horse through the nearby forest, across the sprawling moors. Adventure is her favorite pastime, romance out of the question. She wants to be in control of her own growth, not turn in the direction of a man for support. She figures this out almost immediately as the film opens, when nearby farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), despite never have conventionally meeting her, asks for her hand in marriage. Bathsheba promptly, but politely, rejects the offer.
The film builds and Bathsheba soon collects the inheritance of her recently deceased uncle, which features a sizable property and briskly puts her at the top of the social ladder in Victorian Britain. Coincidentally, Gabriel begins to work for her, both having to downplay their mutual attraction due to the newly formed class difference that intersects them.
Before long, Bathsheba captures the attention of wealthy bachelor William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who, like Gabriel, only has to catch a glimpse of the woman once before making an offer he thinks she won’t be able to refuse. Yet social standing does not cloud her judgment — in touch with herself, she also declines his hand in marriage. The film doesn’t see this as a tragedy, and we applaud her for her unwillingness to conform to the way society expects her to present herself.
But her dignity is threatened when she meets Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a self-confident soldier whose brashness erotically awakens her, stripping away her hard shell like clockwork. Like most young people, she is in the process of coming to the understanding that good sex doesn’t necessarily mean a prosperous romance. She hastily joins him in matrimony, but as the passion expires, she, once again, finds herself drawn to the strong, kind Gabriel.
Far From the Madding Crowd has material that suggests it should be an extensive, patient epic (its 1967 counterpart was almost three hours in length), but much of the fat is cut off by screenwriter David Nicholls (Starter for 10), whose writing flourishes when encompassed by understatement and lets the chemistry between the perfectly cast actors speak for itself. Though I wish the relationship between Bathsheba and Gabriel were given more time to develop (too much is spent with the unlikable Troy), Far From the Madding Crowd is operatic, ahead of its time, and picturesquely rendered; its beautiful textures are impossible to resist.
Shining at the center of the film is an excellent Mulligan deserving of an Oscar nomination. Because of the early year release of the film, though, she will most likely be shunned in the same way the equally phenomenal Mia Wasikowska was in 2011 with Jane Eyre. In the past, Mulligan has proven to be a force to be reckoned with — porcelain on the outside, mighty on the inside — but Far From the Madding Crowd provides her with a project that highlights her notable talent, which reminds one of the Audrey Hepburns, the Deborah Kerrs, of the yesteryear. Mulligan is a wonder; so is the film. B+