Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen
Running time: 119 minutes
Since the runaway success of Downtown Abbey, period dramas appear to have experienced a resurgence in popularity. If you look to either the big or small screen you will find one there for you, lying in wait. It is to this arguable saturation that Thomas Vinterberg pitches this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd. It is a testament to the film’s successes that it manages to hold its head above the crowd, despite being plagued by some imperfections.
With the assistance of David Nicholls’ screenplay, Vinterberg brings the ideas of class and female empowerment to the fore, though they never feel forced, instead slotting nicely into the romance that drives the story. There is visible care and attention poured into every frame to reinforce these ideas. Vinterberg is particularly adept at manipulating staging and location. Far from the Madding Crowd is simply a beautiful film to behold. From some standout moments of cinematography to powerful production, it provides the spectacle of romance audiences expect and crave from period pieces.
There were certain scenes, however, that seemed to push the romance too much, to the detriment of potentially a greater amount of emotional shade in the film. Vinterberg occasionally forces through the romanticism in the film’s staging and soundtrack, sapping drama from some scenes which with a lighter touch could have allowed the romance to shine through whilst creating greater sense of urgency or drama. These are the moments when Far from the Madding Crowd is at its weakest, as it seems to slip backwards into a burgeoning sea of period adaptations.
However, great commendation should go to the cast. Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba easily carries the film, with a performance that deftly balances the range of emotions yet manages to keep the character likable throughout. Mulligan creates a proto-feminist heroine with an easy naturalism that never feels forced. Aside from the occasional hint of his native European accent, Matthias Schoenaerts equally impresses with a physical and well-pitched performance as Gabriel Oak. In a role that could easily fall into the comic or pathetic, Michael Sheen brings an empathetic pathos and humanity to Bathsheba’s older suitor Mr Boldwood. Tom Sturridge’s Sergeant Troy is perhaps the weakest link amongst the principal cast. Presented with slightly less to work with, his performance veers close to the line of caricature. In doing so he becomes too overtly the ‘villain’ of the piece for the audience, where perhaps a more controlled handling might have resulted in a more powerful end product.
In compositions inspired by classical painting, the rolling countryside of southern England provides a picturesque landscape to frame most of the film’s action. However, Vinterberg keeps his most striking imagery up his sleevefor key moments of action or emotion, creating moments that are stunning to behold and guide the audience nicely through the film. A standout scene between Bathsheba and Troy is filled with a tangible magic, a dream-like forest for her seemingly dream-like suitor.
There are some moments, particularly in the streamlined opening twenty minutes or so, that feel that they arrive largely without precedent, robbing them of what you feel may have had more emotional resonance. In other places this streamlining helps the film, meaning that none of the scenes feel like dead weight, but the audience are not always given enough to understand the character’s decisions, occasionally making them feel cold and distant.
The above issues may stem from the process of adaptation, and as with any adaptation the question always arises of how faithful the new work should remain to its source material. In this situation it is a question further muddied by the existence of a film already considered to be the ‘definitive’ adaptation in the form of John Schlesinger’s 1967 version. Yet in the light of the current social attention on feminism and with some striking imagery and strong performances, Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd manages to stand up in its own right regardless of source material. A classical romance with sharp and well-crafted edges, this is a film adds a welcome spice to the well-worn and crowded realm of period dramas.
To book tickets to see Far from the Madding Crowd at York City Screen Picturehouse, please go here