Based on Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel of the same name, Far from the Madding Crowd is a sweltering and sordid motion picture from Thomas Vinterberg. This 2015 period piece features a screenplay by David Nicholls and nails down some seriously intense melodrama, blowing through a soapy tale of rocky circumstance with all the subtlety of a thunderstorm.
There are more twists and turns in Far from the Madding Crowd than one could shake a stick at and Vinterberg’s movie is the better for each one. Thanks to the sheer skill of the performers, the magic of the director, the splendid work of cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, and the snaking snare of circumstances in the Hardy novel, this film succeeds as a glorious scorcher.
In 1870s Britain, Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is working on her aunt’s farm. She is proposed to by the shepherd Gabriel (Matthias Schoenaerts), but she turns him down because she values her independence. Later, all his sheep die in a tragic accident and she inherits her uncle’s large farm. Talk about a contrast in fortunes.
Bathsheba hires Gabriel to work at her new farm and is courted by her wealthy neighbour William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). She also meets the soldier Troy (Tom Sturridge), who impresses her with his brashness and eventually marries her. Unfortunately, Troy turns out to be the tool that everyone thought of him as and Bathsheba is in quite a pickle.
There are complications aplenty in Far from the Madding Crowd, from Troy’s initial sweetheart Fanny (Juno Temple) and her tragic tale to the love square that forms between Bathsheba and the four men in her life. Hardy’s novel suggests head games and Vinterberg more than obliges, directing a siege of mixed intentions and mixed emotions as Mulligan’s character traverses some rather tricky emotional ground.
And Mulligan is certainly up for the task. She flickers through a series of emotions in a single glance, bestowing bottled-up thirst on Troy from the moment she meets him and nearly exploding when the little shit meets her in the forest and starts flashing his sword around. The phallic inferences are clear, as are the damp desires the soldier appeals to.
Mulligan’s Bathsheba, once the figure of control and independence, finds certain doors are being unlocked before her very loins. She suddenly sees the world differently, tempers her pride with need. When she has to call Gabriel back from his firing to deal with ill sheep, Mulligan paints the character with a blend of diverged sensations.
Schoenaerts is the steady shepherd and he brings that sense of stability to the role without overdoing it. He’s been suppressing his yearning because he wants to be a good man, but he also warns Bathsheba that his stoic devotion has an expiry date. Schoenaerts and Mulligan share a contemplative sensuality as they huddle in spaces while the rain pours.
But if anyone truly steals the show in Far from the Madding Crowd, it’s Sheen. His Boldwood is a heartbreaking character and Sheen imbues him with every sense of hesitation and inhibition in the book. When his character first explains the state of things to Gabriel, it hurts. He knows that Bathsheba married Troy and he’s trying to hold it together, but he bloody well can’t and that’s okay.
This concoction of characters presents a magnificent set of opportunities to just go nuts and that’s exactly what Vinterberg does. Far from the Madding Crowd has a Gone with the Wind quality in that it dishes out the soapy stuff with aplomb. What makes these sorts of period pieces great is when they go off the rails through a series of “what now?” plot twists and make no apologies for the ensuing mess.
No, Vinterberg’s movie isn’t understated. No, it’s not a weepy or mild period drama. While it does contain cinematography of the sweeping variety and does have most of the trappings of such genre theatrics, it also remembers the subversive and rather unruly nature of Hardy’s novel. And that’s a damn good thing.