Far from the Madding Crowd “cranks the romantic longing right up to eleven” – review

Carey Mulligan makes a compelling Bathsheba in this safe but swoonsome adaptation, says Emma Simmonds

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★★★

This spirited yet rather safe adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s country-life classic, from Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, makes no bones about wanting you to swoon. It remains faithful to the bulk of the novel’s plot, but streamlines the story by throwing out the boisterous rural colour – specifically the book’s inebriated, unrefined locals and their passion for gossip – in favour of something more polished and love-affair focused. At the centre is the radiant Carey Mulligan – a fitting, faintly modern Bathsheba Everdene.

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Bathsheba is a young woman of trailblazing independence living in Victorian England, who inherits a Dorset farm and takes it upon herself to run things, much to the chagrin of traditional folk. More proud and less vain than the book describes, she’s eager to impress, and impress she does, with her beauty and capability winning the attention of three men, whose passion manifests itself in very different ways. 

Affluent middle-aged bachelor William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) develops a devastating obsession, after Bathsheba unthinkingly toys with him when she mischievously sends him a valentine. Shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) is her stoically devoted right-hand man. But it’s Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge) that swoops in to claim her, captivating Bathsheba with his swordplay and unabashed hubris. 

Problematically, the film assumes such familiarity with the story that the romantic outcome is abundantly clear throughout, with meaningful looks constantly exchanged. More generally it suffers by comparison to the, at the time, unfairly maligned John Schlesinger film from 1967 which – thanks to Nicolas Roeg’s innovative photography – delivered iconic, thoroughly cinematic moments aplenty. In its conservative approach and conventional, character-stripping running time, this adaptation, penned by screenwriter David Nicholls, fails to communicate the boldness and idiosyncrasy of the source material, instead opting for the more traditional trappings of period drama. 

This is all the more surprising given the man at the helm. Vinterberg is the co-founder of the radical Dogme 95 film-making movement (alongside Lars von Trier); he’s best known for the brilliantly deranged Festen, in which a lurid secret shatters an affluent family, and more recently returned to the international spotlight with the Oscar-nominated The Hunt – a film that turned the story of a man assumed to be a child abuser into an interrogatory, unnerving thriller that was deeply critical of its hysterical villagers.

Despite the cautiousness of the approach here, the story remains gripping and the cast is wonderful, with the always emotionally immediate Mulligan an utterly compelling (although altogether less tortured) Bathsheba, who’s made to seem less responsible for the catastrophic events she sets into motion (the book is rather judgemental regarding women’s perceived wiles). Sheen’s performance is of great nuance, too, as he elicits sympathy for an increasingly desperate man; Schoenaerts brings the right measure of physicality and decency; and Sturridge does well with a more obviously villainous version of Troy, who’s almost entirely shorn of his charisma and complexity.

The fluid, ravishing cinematography (courtesy of regular Vinterberg collaborator Charlotte Bruus Christensen), however, is a double-edged sword. Far from the Madding Crowd is so incredibly luminous that it appears buffed free of its grit, danger, and of the sweat and dirt of outdoor toil. Still, there’s an invigorating freshness, it’s undeniably gorgeous and, by cranking the romantic longing right up to eleven, it’ll eventually seduce you into submission.

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Far from the Madding Crowd is released in cinemas 1 May