Alibi V.24 No.21 • May 21-27, 2015 

Film Review

Far from the Madding Crowd

Gritty, 19th-century English romance finds love and hate down on the farm

Far from the Madding Crowd ()

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen

“Wanna make out and then milk some cows?”
“Wanna make out and then milk some cows?”

In the realm of 19th-century romantic literature, the works of Thomas Hardy have a bit more meat on the bone than your average English melodrama of love and marriage. In the more typical novels (let’s say, for the sake of argument, those of Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters), there’s an awful lot of sitting around, drinking tea and discussing of “whomever shall I marry?” It’s not that the characters in Hardy’s novels never broach the subject of marriage—but they rarely drink tea. And they’re just as likely to hurt each other, betray each other, kill each other and break one another’s hearts as they are to fall madly in love. Hardy was more of a realist than his contemporaries, and his occasionally gritty take on love and life in the mid-19th-century English countryside gets its cinematic due in Thomas Vinterberg’s emotional adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd.

The film starts by introducing us to Bathsheba Everdene (even she thinks it’s a mouthful), who’s come to stay on her aunt’s farm in southwestern England for the summer, circa 1850. Bathsheba (played by the increasingly essential Carey Mulligan from An Education and The Great Gatsby) is a mere slip of a lass—but she’s got a serious pair of ovaries on her. Headstrong and proud, she’s determined to learn the ropes of the farm business. One day, she bumps into her aunt’s new neighbor Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts from Rust and Bone and The Drop), a rugged sheep herder with dreamy eyes. Unversed in the ways of romance, Gabriel immediately proposes marriage to the lovely Miss Everdene. Flattered, but figuring she’s doing just fine without a man, Bathsheba turns him down. The two remain flirtatious and friendly, however, until a farming accident (hey, they happen) reverses their fortunes. Gabriel’s livestock is killed off, and he loses his farm to his creditors. Bathsheba, conversely, inherits a massive estate from her wealthy uncle.

Wandering the English countryside in search of work, Gabriel stumbles across the new estate of the now-rich Miss Everdene. He accepts a job tending her sheep, but his dreams of marrying her are thoroughly quashed now that their stations in life are so unequal. Plus, he’s faced with a number of much more suitable rivals. There’s Bathsheba’s new neighbor, the wealthy, handsome but emotionally bottled-up William Boldwood (Michael Sheen from Frost/Nixon and Underworld). Boldwood is immediately smitten by the independent Miss Everdene, who runs things a little differently around her farm. Instead of setting herself up as the lady of the manor house, she works, dines and socializes with her farmhands—instincts driven by her savvy business sense and tough work ethic. Like Gabriel before him, Boldwood proposes marriage only to find himself shot down by Miss Everdene. Good as she is at business, Bathsheba is terrible at love—mostly because she has no idea what she wants. As if that weren’t enough, Bathsheba also crosses paths with slick-talking soldier boy Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge, Pirate Radio), who sets his sights on the wealthy and comely farm owner. (Geez, lady, leave some man-meat for the rest of Dorset County.)

Danish-born writer-director Vinterberg (The Celebration) was one of the founding “brothers” behind the stripped-down film movement Dogme 95. With Far from the Madding Crowd, however, he gives audiences the sort of lush, beautifully lensed costume drama they’re expecting. Unlike other BBC-backed films, however, this one appropriately bypasses a lot of the stuffy drawing rooms, allowing its drama to unfold amid the rich, rolling hills of Dorset (or as Hardy fancifully dubbed it “Wessex”). Though his works were romantic, Hardy was a realist at heart, preferring to create accurate, detailed depictions of rural English life. Vinterberg does what he can in the allotted time, giving the film a historical, lived-in feel that sets it apart from the glassed-in “museum” quality of so many British productions.

Of course, you shouldn’t go into Far from the Madding Crowd expecting a Cinderella-style, happily-ever-after ending. It’s not that Hardy’s characters are forever denied happy endings. It’s just that Hardy was wise enough to know that even “true love” can leave a lot of scarred and wounded people in its wake. Vinterberg’s script sands off a few of the original’s rough edges, giving Bathsheba an entirely appropriate proto-feminist sheen and making characters like Boldwood a touch more sympathetic. At the same time, Vinterberg doesn’t pull punches when it comes to shocking twists of fate and tales of love gone sour. Bottom line: If you like your romance rough-and-tumble, the long, hard road of Far from the Madding Crowd is the sort of dirty-faced, brokenhearted historical romance you’ll swoon over.