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It's a Mad, Mad World

Fox Searchlight Pictures
 119 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed byThomas Vinterberg
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts 
Far from the Madding Crowd

Most people have heard of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (although many probably think the word in the title is “maddening”), but few know much about it. Even though director John Schlesinger made a reasonably faithful big screen version in 1967 starring Julie Christie, at the height of her career, the movie only met with lukewarm audience and critical approval. So, Thomas Vinterberg’s new adaptation arrives under somewhat unusual circumstances: an acknowledged literary classic that most people can watch without any preconceptions. And ironically, it will probably play better with those who don’t know about the rather powerful sensual elements in the book.


Crowd was one of the first novels with a career woman for a heroine. Bathsheba Everdene is the owner of a large farm and her efforts to be taken seriously as a businessperson and run the farm profitably are a major theme in Hardy’s novel. However, the novel is unusual in other respects as well; Bathsheba and her suitors are portrayed as characters with physical, as opposed to merely romantic desires. Schlesinger captured these elements as well as he could within the constraints of 1960s film standards, but Vinterberg holds back for the most part, resulting in a more feminist heroine likely to resonate with modern audiences.


Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) finds herself in the seemingly enviable position of having three potential suitors. She has known Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) ever since he was a neighbor of hers before she inherited her uncle’s farm. Oak proposed to Bathsheba, but she turned him down, not wanting to be tied down. Shortly after, Oak lost his flock of sheep in a freak accident and, without the income they generated, his farm as well. Eventually he gets a job working on Bathsheba’s farm, and the two become good friends.


Her second suitor is William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), an older farmer who has a larger farm next to hers. He is stuffy, far from romantic, but decent and proper. He also proposes after he mistakes a valentine she sent him as a joke as a sign of affection. Naturally, she turns him down as well, but he remains interested.


The third suitor is former Army sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), who literally sweeps Bathsheba off her feet with a dazzling display of swordplay. He satisfies her physical needs but is clearly wanting in just about every other way. He soon starts gambling away her money, to the extent that the farm itself is in jeopardy.


Unlike many romance novels and films, in which heroines are the victims of cruel fate that threaten their happiness, in Madding Crowd, most of Bathsheba’s problems are completely of her own making. Her drive to be taken as seriously as one of the male farm owners causes her to behave distantly, albeit in a mannered fashion, towards both Oak and Boldwood and, in her infatuation, she fails to heed the obvious warning signs about Troy. However, Mulligan is such a powerful force in the film that the audience overlooks her romantic missteps. Modern audiences can more easily relate to a woman who postpones marriage for her career far more readily than audiences of Hardy’s era could.


Madding Crowd will likely return Mulligan to the ranks of the top young actresses, a spot she has vacated largely due to a lack of work the last couple of years. However, she gets able support from the actors playing two of her three suitors. Schoenaerts brings a quiet dignity to his role but registers each and every slight he receives from Bathsheba. Michael Sheen brings a dignity and maturity to the role of the older farmer Boldwood that is far more restrained than was the character in the Hardy novel. It puts a completely different spin on his actions at the film’s climax, one that makes his eventual fate far more puzzling than in the book or in Schlesinger’s film.


The only actor who fails to impress is the completely miscast Tom Sturridge. As written (and as portrayed by Terence Stamp in the earlier movie), Troy is the dashing military man who can turn the head of even a sensible woman like Bathsheba. Sturridge comes across as a pouty pretty boy brat, not at all the sort who would lead Bathsheba astray. The swordplay scene, in which he waves his sword ever so close to Bathsheba, is the most sensual in the book, and it works here too, only because the audience sees her reactions in close-ups. Sturridge is nothing more than the body attached to the sword.


The screenplay by David Nicholls keeps all the major plot elements from the novel but condenses some of the details. Most of the deleted material again comes at the expense of the character of Frank Troy. He’s a more complex character in the book than he is portrayed here and it’s easier to understand Bathsheba’s conflicted emotions about him.


Vinterberg takes full advantage of the English countryside with some great cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen. The farmlands look as stunning in this movie as I’ve ever seen the British countryside, and the pastoral setting enhances the attractiveness of Bathsheba and Oak when they’re out in the fields. If the story plays down the book’s sensuality somewhat, the photography makes up for it.


Even though the costuming, production design, and other physical details of Madding Crowd seem quite authentic, the movie itself feels comfortably modern. Thanks to a strong performance by Carey Mulligan, Bathsheba Everdene seems to be a woman who would be right at home in a corporate boardroom today. Many of these elements of feminism were present in Hardy’s novel, along with the more sweeping romance, including the famous line from the book, “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”  However, Vinterberg varies the balance, and the result is a romance that, despite its 19th century look has a definite, and enjoyable, 21st century feel.

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Far from the Madding Crowd (2015) on IMDb