There are many rewards in this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s famous 1874 novel, chief among them the leading performances. Carey Mulligan captures us in the opening scene, where we meet the willful, independent-minded Bathsheba Everdene. She wears a knowing smile on her face as she overturns conventions and makes her way in a man’s world. When she inherits an uncle’s sheep farm she unhesitatingly takes control and tells her staff that she intends to “astonish” them…which she does.
Out of stubbornness and habit, she shuns the advances of a handsome shepherd (Matthias Schoenaerts), even though she likes him. He can’t dismiss his feelings for her so easily, and lingers on her farm if for no other reason than to keep an eye on her. Over time, she is wooed by a stiff, older neighbor (Michael Sheen) and a cocky soldier (Tom Sturridge), but her inability to read her own emotions—and, in some cases, swallow her pride—causes her no little anguish.
Having recently adapted Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (for British television) and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, David Nicholls was a good choice to tackle this material, which is directed with great care by Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration, The Hunt). The production values are exceptional; much of the picture was shot where it takes place, in Dorset, England.
But no one can overcome the episodic nature of the narrative—which quite frankly, left me bored at times—or the annoyance one eventually feels toward Bathsheba. Her anti-Victorian attitude is admirable and amusing, at first, but her refusal to heed her own inner voice is infuriating. It’s no spoiler to say that she remains obstinate right through the final scene.
I did love watching Mulligan and her three male costars. Since bursting onto the international scene in the Oscar-nominated Belgian movie Bullhead four years ago, Schoenaerts has proven himself an actor of considerable range in such films as Rust and Bone, opposite Marion Cotillard, and The Drop, with James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy. This movie offers him another great showcase and presents him as a world-class leading man.
Sturridge is perfectly cast as the popinjay who impresses Mulligan, to her own surprise, while Sheen takes on an unusual role as an older man who is uncomfortable in his own skin—and outmatched by the wily woman he desires, at any cost.
John Schlesinger’s lavish 1967 version of Far from the Madding Crowd with Julie Christie ran nearly three hours, so we can be grateful that Vinterberg and Nicholls didn’t feel the need to follow that path. Their film may be imperfect, but it’s beautifully acted and staged. I daresay fans of romantic drama will not be disappointed.