Far from the Madding Crowd

Love has your backPhoto: Fox Searchlight Pictures

5 StarsWhy I Saw It: Irrevocably blown away by Schoenaerts in Bullhead, and always game for Mulligan and Sheen.
What I Thought: Grounded, graceful, and almost intolerably romantic.

Far from the Madding Crowd. Dir. Thomas Vinterberg. Perf. Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple, Sparky. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2015.

Adaptation of the acclaimed Thomas Hardy novel, about a financially and emotionally independent woman of Victorian England, who receives proposals of marriage from three starkly differing suitors.
What warrants action when no decision requires it? What’s worth letting the heart take command when the head has done such a fine job of things for so long? When the mobile of one’s life suspends in perfect balance, what is the touch that might be worth setting it spinning?

What indeed?

Adapted from the acclaimed novel by Thomas Hardy set in Victorian England, Far from the Madding Crowd brings us a tale of delicacy and grace, in which we consider Life’s pivotal moments when what is precious and worth protecting is asked to give way to another such form, with no assurance that the choice will result in either.

Here we meet one Bathsheba Everdene (Everdeen?…),who by fortunate circumstance and strength of character feels no pressure – societal or otherwise – to bind herself to marriage. Financially self-sufficient, she fully recognizes the laws of the day under which once wed, she becomes the chattel property of her husband and cedes to him dominion over quite literally all that is hers, including her person.

Content to direct her business affairs, Bathsheba still also respects the strictures of position and the constraints they impose upon her personal ones. She’s not opposed to a match, but it must be one that stirs her heart without disturbing her standing.

Enter three handsome bachelors – each offering a compelling attribute, each possessed of a fatal flaw: constant sheep farmer Gabriel Oak, wealthy landowner William Boldwood, and passionate soldier Sergeant Troy.

Unlike many of its kind, Far from the Madding Crowd does not feature stylistic glory in its own right, opting instead for a matter-of-fact depiction in which we feel as familiar with this environment as we do our own. Such may cause a slight ding in the ratings from those for whom costume design seizes front and center attention, but bodes well for those who “don’t like period films.” Despite the risk of fan disappointment, however, the approach represents a decision of highest professional excellence by designer Janet Patterson (and to whatever extent he was involved, director Thomas Vinterberg as well).

Beautiful and intricately crafted, the costumes captivate at every turn without once overshadowing the proceedings of the scene, and a touch any less delicate would have destroyed the film. Unlike more celebratory light fare (such as Emma), or intense drama in need of ballast (such as Anna Karenina), Far from the Madding Crowd is a story of nuance which otherwise would have collapsed under the weight of its own fabric.

Instead, Patterson’s costumes, Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography, and Vinterberg’s exquisite direction create a sure foundation for the mighty weight of performance by the principals, and in particular Carey Mulligan and Matthias Schoenaerts Schoenaerts (pronounced mah-TEE-us SHEH-narts).

Matthias Schoenaerts and Carey Mulligan in Far from the Madding Crowd

As good as it gets / Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Mulligan put herself officially on the map in 2009 with her Oscar-nominated turn in An Education, and subsequently proved out her talent through a varied array of portrayals, including a disdainful ex-girlfriend (Inside Llewyn Davis), the emotionally fragile sole family member of an active addict (Shame), and legendary coquette Daisy Buchanan (The Great Gatsby). And as did Jake Gyllenhaal with Prisoners, here she marshals that wide (if comparatively unsung) body of work into a singular portrayal that puts her squarely on the path of the greats. “It is my intention to astonish you all,” spoke Bathsheba, and I’m quite persuaded that one day Mulligan will look back on a career the likes of Streep, Dench, and Mirren.

Comparative newcomer Tom Sturridge and accomplished veteran Michael Sheen offer impressive and often heartbreaking performances as two of Bathsheba’s three tormented suitors, yet it is Matthias Schoenaerts who faces the greatest challenge, and meets it to perfection. Unlike his character’s rivals, both of whose experience express outward, Schoenaerts’ Mr. Oaks’ experience is entirely interior, up to and including his brief verbal exchanges with others. In lesser hands, this character would have been a functionary; in Schoenaerts’, he’s a powerhouse, fully realized in three dimensions and then some.

Speaking of being astonished, if you’re unfamiliar with him, you won’t be after this; he runs the gamut from romance to villainy the way Josh Groban dances along the octaves, and with equal prowess (I’m still recovering from his accomplishment in Bullhead, my first encounter with him in 2011).

With Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Vinterberg again delivers the emotional knockout at which the Danes seem so gifted; I summarily hit the mat in Round 1 with Vinterberg’s The Hunt, as well as with Susanne Bier’s Brothers (her version, Brødre – the American script botched it), and pretty much anything by Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, Drive, Pusher…). Lars von Trier just prefers to pummel me mercilessly for a full fifteen rounds, but he nonetheless has somehow claimed about twenty-three hours of my life to date.

Though here we’re graced with gentler material, Vinterberg conceives Far from the Madding Crowd with that Danish slow burn undercurrent, infusing it with a groundedness and poignant beauty that becomes almost intolerable by story’s end. It’s a bit different take than what we’re used to seeing in such a production, but one that elevates romance to devotion, and fairy tale to inspiration.

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