Far From the Madding Crowd
Far From the Madding Crowd, romance/drama/period piece, PG-13, Violet Crown Cinema, 3.5 chiles
During a party scene in Far From the Madding Crowd, actress Carey Mulligan sings “The Sprig of Thyme,” an English folk ballad that begins, “Come all you fair and tender girls/That flourish in your prime/Beware, beware keep your garden fair/Let no man steal your thyme.”
The song encapsulates the thrust of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel on which this film is based. It’s the story of Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan), a headstrong young woman who inherits her late uncle’s farm, which she struggles to manage while being courted by three very different men: her friend and employee, shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts); William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), an older, wealthy bachelor; and the arrogant soldier Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge). All propose to Bathsheba, with varying results.
While Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) works strictly in the mold of a period piece, his vision feels at once fresh and true to the time. Gorgeous landscapes are showcased by capable cinematography: During an early scene, one of Gabriel’s collies drives his flock of sheep over a seaside cliff at dawn. Gabriel races up a grassy bluff as the sunlight first hits it, too late to save his sheep from hurling themselves over the edge. The scene is stunning.
Mulligan’s Bathsheba exudes quiet confidence. Her moments of vulnerability and doubt aren’t as beguiling as when she’s sure of herself: Watching Bathsheba gallop on horseback across the fields surrounding her farm is vicariously exhilarating.
Far From the Madding Crowd reverberates with lust. Beyond the overt sexual tension between Bathsheba and her suitors, the verdant landscape is a nod to fecundity. While Bathsheba has no need for a husband, she’s human and unable to ignore carnal temptations. She chooses the wrong man because he excites her and she’s curious about sex — the price of which is marriage and submission.
The film’s most dramatic scenes sometimes lack urgency: When one character is fatally shot, the prevailing sense is an anticlimactic “Oh well.” As Troy, Sturridge is a weak link in an otherwise impressive cast. He’s not dashing enough to play the seducer, and it’s difficult to believe Bathsheba would lose her head to anyone with such a terrible mustache. Fortunately, Sheen nails Boldwood’s loneliness and bungled attempts at valor. And as Gabriel, Schoenaerts personifies the strong, (mostly) silent type, which plays well off his rugged good looks.
Bathsheba is a 20th-century woman in the Victorian Age. While considering Boldwood’s marriage proposal, she mentions to her companion Liddy that she’s been proposed to before. Liddy exclaims, “What a luxury to have a choice!” But a choice between men is hardly a luxury. Bathsheba is at her best when she is unfettered by marriage — love and lust be damned.
Lean in: Matthias Schoenaerts and Carey Mulligan