Sex and the single heiress
This lightweight but gorgeous version of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 classic is certainly a film of its time, writes
Carey Mulligan in Far From the Madding Crowd
FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD Directed by Thomas Vinterberg. Starring Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple, Rowan Hedley. 12A cert, general release, 119 min This latest adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s breakthrough novel was always going to struggle beneath the mighty weight of John Schlesinger’s well-remembered 1967 version. In one sense, however, Thomas Vinterberg has proved the equal of Schlesinger.
Shot in ravishing Panavision by Nic Roeg, the earlier film was so soaked in the era’s visual aesthetic – Terence Stamp looked to have borrowed his uniform from Sgt Pepper – that it became an emblem of the swinging ’60s. Vinterberg’s film may not be up front in any future I Love 2015 TV show, but the costumes and line deliveries do stink of current attitudes. Keep eyes open for the leatherjerkin thing that Carey Mulligan wears before (I’m guessing here) opening her organic tofu stand in Portland.
Mulligan offers us a more modern version of Bathsheba Everdene. There is never much sense that the captivating farm owner – propelled into power through inheritance – has any awareness of the looming pressure to conform to contemporaneous gender norms. Where’s the struggle? Bathsheba’s relaxed confidence is every bit as anachronistic as her gleaming teeth.
For all that, this is a lovely looking, sweetly scored midmarket diversion. Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who worked with Vinterberg on The Hunt, makes something painterly of the gorgeous countryside. Craig Armstrong alternates proud Elgar chords with Vaughn Williams romanticism to suitable sylvan effect.
Indeed, the opening half is almost entirely delicious. It is not until the second hour that niggles about casting and misguided priorities in the adaptation begin to drag the piece down.
Matthias Schoenaerts never convinces as a man of the English West Country – indeed, Wessex vowels are conspicuous by their near total absence – but he has more than enough charisma to act as the moral keystone of the film. Farmer Gabriel Oak is the first of three men to propose to Ms Everdene in the course of the film and, though rebuffed, he is the most level-headed throughout.
Mulligan has a softer presence than did Julie Christie in the 1967 incarnation, but the new film still struggles with Hardy’s misogynistic disdain for women who prefer cads in metaphorical sports cars to nice blokes who bring soup to the elderly.
The second nice (although borderline barmy) chap she meets is Michael Sheen’s humourless, diligent William Boldwood. Being the sort of woman Hardy thinks too many women to be, she sends him a Valentine card as a joke and triggers a potentially fatal obsession.
So far, so okay. The film’s greatest problems gather round the arrival of dashing, frightful Sgt Troy. Given that he could hardly be more of a jerk if he were played by the young Jude Law, Troy really needs to send off the same charismatic sparks Stamp generated. Why else would Bathsheba take up with him?
Tom Sturridge is a decent actor, but his Troy is far too lightweight to convince as a cruel force of nature. David Nicholls’s adaptation then exacerbates the problem by paring away the character’s defining scenes from the book’s final act. We are left with an equivocally scented zephyr rather than the annihilating human tornado the story desperately needs.
Still, the film must be accounted a modest success. Vinterberg certainly grasps the opportunity – always present in Hardy – to sublimate sexuality at every turn. Sturridge’s phallic sword whips past Mulligan’s tense breast in the story’s most famous episode. She sweats amid leaping flames as Schoenaerts helps her save the harvest. Even a bout of sheep dipping takes on the character of a displaced orgy.
Whatever else you might say about this writer, you couldn’t argue that stuff doesn’t happen.