“Far From the Madding Crowd” would not feel out of place on a shelf between “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility.” Thomas Hardy’s 1874 classic English country tale also touches on issues of women’s independence in society, class, wealth and propriety in 19th century England. This latest movie adaptation of “Far From the Madding Crowd” is just at home among the finest period pieces in the genre thanks to a careful director and Carey Mulligan’s subtle performance.
Bathesheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is an independent woman who befriends a neighboring shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). He proposes to her, but she says he will not be able to tame her and declines. Now gifted with an inheritance of land and farm, Bathsheba hires her friend to help tend her flock. A rich older neighbor, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and a strapping soldier, Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge) court Bathsheba and complicate her relationship with her oldest and closest friend.
All praise belongs to Carey Mulligan’s nuanced portrayal of a headstrong yet vulnerable woman. In this version, Bathsheba is empowered in the way "Pride and Prejudice" character Elizabeth Bennet is unrepentant. She wants to experience love and not be bound by it. Bathesheba works hard to be known as in charge of her family’s farm and to earn the respect of her neighbors. No one is forcing Bathesheba to marry. In a rare story from the era, she chooses to marry for her own free will, choosing a partner she’s sexually attracted to.
Much like the 2005 “Pride and Prejudice” adaptation from Joe Wright, director Thomas Vinterberg (“The Hunt”) makes the idyllic natural splendors of the English countryside an integral part of his story. He liberally incorporates lens flares, romantic silhouette lighting and color contrasts to paint his portrait of Bethesheba’s story. Time is relatively blurred; the seasons are no more a marker than scenery in “Far From the Madding Crowd.” In this way, our attention is focused solely on the characters and not trivial details.
The suitors appear very close to the “Pride and Prejudice” mold, but have other intricacies that make Bathesheba’s decision all the more difficult. The soldier figure is of course a lout, but the odd Mr. Boldwood is a sympathetic if troubling character. He so desires Bathesheba, he sacrifices everything and overlooks her flaws, but her heart is meant to choose its own way. The Mr. Darcy figure in the story, the shepherd Oak, is also imperfect and threatens to leave her, but in watching Schoenaerts and Mulligan, the audience finds a delightful pair who plays off each other’s strengths. Oak is stoic and dutiful while Everdene is knowledgeable and persistent. It’s almost not fair to all the other contenders, but we’re meant to form favorites early on.
“Far From the Madding Crowd” is a welcome surprise in a summer brimming with explosions, action and superheroes. Its familiar territory still keeps the viewer invested in the possibility of “what if” and supple details of an idealized, if imperfect, pastoral portrait. Mulligan is a delight to watch as Bathesheba navigates her way through oppressive society and suitors. She’s just as affirming a heroine as Elizabeth Bennet, and even more daring to strike out on her own.
In this dearth of leading women in Hollywood, Bathesheba’s attitude towards self-sufficiency and independence is something we so rarely see in movies anymore. We almost need something like “Far From the Madding Crowd” to break the monotony.
“Far From the Madding Crowd” opens in theaters May 1.