Sunday, May 3, 2015

Review: Far from the Madding Crowd

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Thomas Vinterberg's "Far from the Madding Crowd" is a beautifully acted and visually lush version of Thomas Hardy's classic novel. What makes this odd is the fact that the film's director was once one of the progenitors of the Dogme 95 film movement - which deemphasized aesthetics for more naturalistic performances and handheld camerawork - and is responsible for the fascinating and grim "The Celebration."

And yet, Vinterberg - who was nominated for Best Foreign Film a few years back for his intense drama "The Hunt" - unleashes his inner Merchant Ivory with his latest. His "Far From the Madding Crowd" doesn't reinvent the wheel when it comes to adapting Victorian era novels, but the picture is a very good - and gorgeous looking - character study.

In this version, Carey Mulligan does a solid job of inhabiting Bathsheba Everdene, an independent woman who takes over her uncle's farm following his death and works hard to stave off three suitors. Mulligan has provided excellent work in "An Education," "Drive," "Shame" and "Inside Llewyn Davis" and her performance here is one of her best.

One of the reasons Bathsheba is so likable - and a little flawed, like the best characters - is that she doesn't seem to care what anyone thinks of her. The marriage proposals start trickling in toward the beginning of the film and Bathsheba's reason for denying them is simple - she doesn't believe she needs a husband.

Her first suitor is Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a kind and physically imposing sheep farmer who first proposes to Bathsheba and, after a spell of particularly bad luck, ends up working on her farm. He's a hard worker and easily the best man of the three attempting to court our heroine.

William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a wealthy but socially awkward bachelor, is the second of Bathsheba's suitors. We overhear that he was once jilted by his first love and his attempts to woo Bathsheba are earnest, but not particularly successful.

And last - and most certainly least - of the three men attempting to marry Bathsheba is a young, arrogant soldier named Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), whom we first meet as he plans to marry another woman (Juno Temple).

One of the elements that makes "Far from the Madding Crowd" such a rich story is not only does it juggle the three stories involving Bathsheba and the men pursuing her, but it places equal emphasis on her attempts to keep her farm prospering. These scenes, which include Bathsheba and Gabriel working with the farm's sheep as well as scenes in which the entire farm staff socializes, are some of the film's best. And the picture also does a stellar job of portraying the depths of the friendship that forms between Bathsheba and Gabriel after she turns down his earlier marriage proposal.

Yes, "Far from the Madding Crowd" is romantic in the tradition of many of the great Victorian novels, but it's also the chronicle of a budding friendship and a strong woman. The combination of Vinterberg's talents behind the camera and the film's strong performances make for a very good adaptation of a classic work of fiction.

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