May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor, by Josh Long
Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg’s follow up to 2012’s critically acclaimed The Hunt is an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, a classic piece of 19th century British literature. The project is in keeping with the continuum of Vinterberg’s films, moving away from the avant-garde Dogme 95 and towards more accessible productions. Still, it’s not the sign of a filmmaker giving up his vision for what’s profitable. Vinterberg’s transformation has been a talented filmmaker honing and refining a visual aesthetic and tone, one that can bring a unique approach to any story he tells. We can see this clearly in Far from the Madding Crowd, as the director’s vision brings new life to a classic story.
The film’s story is a faithful adaptation of Hardy’s novel (any deviations in story specifics still retain the spirit of the book). The story’s heroine, Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan, and yes, that’s where Katniss gets her name) is a strong-willed and independently minded woman who finds herself mistress of a large farm at a relatively young age. The setting allows for many explorations of the difficulties for a woman in a man’s world, but the primary conflicts in the film come from the different suitors Bathsheba encounters. First, there is the strong and silent Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), whose fall from grace due to a disaster on his own farm has brought him down to the level of a simple shepherd under Bathsheba’s employ. Then there is the dour Mr. Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a neighboring farmer who falls prey to a prank convincing him that Bathsheba is in love with him. Rejecting these two, she is whisked away by a dashing soldier, Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge), whose gallant appearance belies a deceptive nature.
In her first few years as mistress on Weatherbury Farm, the series of events range from romantic to tragic. The limits on her sex and chance reversals of fortune are always key factors in her story. These were both subjects that Thomas Hardy often dealt with, and both come through strongly in the film. Unfortunately, some moments early in the script seem too eager to remind us of these themes, particularly the proto-feminist ones. Bathsheba plainly tells us, twice in the first ten minutes, that she’s an “independent” woman. It’s true, but that fact would be stronger if the film would simply continue and allow us to see for ourselves, rather than tell us beforehand what we should expect.
For this film Vinterberg is again working with director of photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen, and it’s much to the film’s benefit. The two together are able to create a lush, organic tone that vibrantly brings the subject matter to life. The film truly captures the comforts of 19th century pastoral life, while still balancing them against the ever-present threat of the elements. Vinterberg’s direction does a fine job of unflinchingly depicting the tragic, at times even brutal, elements of the story. There’s a continuous ebb and flow between peace and chaos, and the film’s dedication to that struggle keeps it from being simple melodrama.
In a story that revolves so heavily around the relationships of its characters, the performances are vital. And mostly, they’re successful. Carey Mulligan not only brings all the necessary depth and emotion to Bathsheba, but also endows the role with an innocence that isn’t on the page, something that shows her as more than just the stock character of a strong woman. It reminds us that she’s still young to have so much on her shoulders, and brings us to wonder what it must be like to entertain so many romantic proposals in her situation. Schoenaerts’ Farmer Oak is reserved, but still able to show the passion he keeps hidden. Michael Sheen is a perfect casting choice for Mr. Boldwood; the role requires him to shift naturally from detached to obsessive, and he pulls both extremes off without ever becoming a caricature. The weakest link is Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Troy. He’s able to convey the ill intentions of Troy’s darker side, but never has the charisma the character requires – he should sweep Bathsheba off her feet, but his character never seems strong enough to have any believable control over Mulligan’s magnetic Bathsheba.
Lastly, the setting of the film is remarkably beautiful. Vinterberg fluidly incorporates the scenery of Dorset, England, seemingly in every scene. Something about the way he shoots it brings a fairy tale quality. Not that it’s stylized enough to be heightened beyond believability. Again he’s striking a balance, between the simplicity of country folk and the breathtaking beauty of the world they live in.
Fans of Hardy’s novel will certainly find a faithful adaptation in this film, and a fresh approach to the story through Vinterberg’s unique vision. Also a solid period piece for those interested in late 19th century England. Despite a few problem spots, a very enjoyable film.