Far From the Madding Crowd
Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg
Written by: David Nicholls (screenplay), Thomas Hardy (book)
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge
Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd is often too shackled to its narrative to truly resonate. It seems forced and prodded along every step of the way, and almost nothing seems to spring out of the story’s perceived humanity. It’s only fitting that Madding Crowd’s most beautiful, haunting moment involves animals; a dog chasing a herd of sheep over a cliff and to their death, with an overhead shot lit by the rising sun catching their needless tumble.
Their shepherd’s (Matthias Schoenaerts) subsequent burst of rage seems to reverberate through the the top of that cliff, and it resonates more than nearly any other emotion on display for the rest of the movie. It’s too bad, because Madding Crowd’s cast truly gives it their all. Carey Mulligan’s performance as Bathsheba Everdene occasionally manages to convey a sense of inner life, of a stubbornly independent farmer grappling with a trio of attractive suitors. In addition to Schoenaerts’ farmhand Gabriel Oak, there is a wealthy, middle aged next-door neighbor (Michael Sheen) and a blunt, charming-on-the-surface soldier Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge).
Oaks and Troy rarely share the screen, but they are the two main contenders in the quiet war for Bathsheba’s affection. Though the men all come from different social ranks, those ranks do not dictate which of them Bathsheba must marry. If that were the case, William Boldwood (Sheen) would naturally win over the other two. Madding Crowd draws much of its drama from Bathsheba’s reluctance to want to marry at all, and Boldwood never really stands a chance.
Sheen plays him that way, too. He has a look of crippling self-doubt nearly every time he talks to Bathsheba, and he’s framed at an awkward distance from the action, not wanting to be pulled into it. His performance is a good example of how the movie fails to convey the full depth of its characters’ feelings. Boldwood ultimately sacrifices his freedom for Bathsheba; (spoilers ahead) he shoots Troy as he grabs her and demands that she obey him. There is a quick shot showing a prison door close on him and a brief scene that shows dresses and gifts in his house with her first name and his last name stitched on them.
Had Vinterberg embraced the melodrama at the heart of Madding Crowd instead of opting for a more restrained adaptation, scenes like those could have been devastating instead of throwaways. Instead, it’s a tedious movie sprinkled with visually sumptuous moments, like the first time we see Oaks see Bathsheba, bending over backwards to go under low-hanging branches while on her horse. The way she’s framed by the trees she seems to be floating across the screen; a few minutes later he’s asking her to marry him and she laughs.
I wish the movie had more scenes like this, ones filled with a genuine longing. There’s a rich emotional history etched on Mulligan’s face, and she conveys joy, desire and regret over the course of a single smirk. The same could be said of Schoenaerts’ stare; sadly they’re both trapped in a movie where none of that ultimately matters.