Though Far from the Madding Crowd is one of Thomas Hardy's least gloomy novels, that really isn't saying much.
here Hardy went, misery followed, and while this bucolic yarn feels like The Wizard of Oz next to such angst fests as Tess of the d'Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure, it's full of the unhappy marriages, tragic deaths, thwarted lovers and frustrated ambitions that crowd the margins of his other work. It's an epic in every sense, a story of desperate men and lovesick women lost in the beautiful inclemency of the wild Dorset countryside. All of which sounds temptingly cinematic, and this is not the first attempt to adapt Hardy's novel for the screen.
A 1915 British version tried to tell the complex tale without the benefit of dialogue, which must have been fun, but that film is lost. John Schlesinger's 1967 adaptation was a staple on TV in the 1970s and '80s, and hovers potently in the minds of anyone who ever saw it. It certainly hovers in mine, mainly because it starred a young and resplendent Julie Christie in the pivotal role of embattled Victorian farm owner Bathsheba Everdene.
In Thomas Vinterberg's update, Carey Mulligan plays Bathsheba, a young, orphaned beauty whose fortunes are transformed when she inherits her late uncle's farm. It's a substantial holding, and what first appears a blessing threatens to become a noose around Bathsheba's neck when she struggles to manage the farm. To her aid rides Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a sturdy yeoman and shepherd who comes to work for Ms. Everdene when he tragically loses his flock.
Before she inherited the farm, Gabriel had asked for her hand in marriage, but Bathsheba had declined as she'd no wish to become "any man's property". Now that their social stations have so radically altered, such a union would be ridiculous, but Gabriel loves her and becomes her silent and long-suffering guardian angel. Which is just as well, because she's much in need of him.
Bathsheba Everdene is one of Hardy's most infuriating characters, a wrong-headed, stubborn woman who shows great resolve in entering a man's world and running her farm, but is an unmitigated disaster when it comes to love. Gabriel stands aside while she's pursued by a middle-aged gentleman farmer called Boldwood (Michael Sheen). But things go horribly wrong when she falls for the more obvious charms of a dashing cavalry officer, Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). He marries her for her money but loves another, and trouble dogs his every step.
Given Thomas Vinterberg's arthouse background, this is a surprisingly safe and stolid production: it's sumptuous, beautifully photographed, and entirely lacking in visual imagination.
And while Thomas Hardy would surely approve of the loving way in which the changing seasons of the Dorset countryside are rendered, a couple of fatal casting decisions almost strangle his story at birth.
In the novel, Bathsheba is described as being so beautiful that it's almost a kind of curse, which drives sane men wild and plunges her into a maelstrom of conflicting passions. While a decent actress, Carey Mulligan does not fit that bill, leaving one vaguely confused as to why half the county is chasing her. But the casting of Tom Sturridge as Frank Troy is even more problematic.
In Schlesinger's film, a young and rangy Terence Stamp swaggered into Bathsheba's life and turned her head entirely. But Sturridge looks like a small boy wearing a fake moustache who borrowed his father's cavalry jacket, and is entirely overshadowed by the brooding intensity of the excellent Matthias Schoenaerts.
All this upends the novel's themes and intentions, but the film is very watchable in a picture postcard kind of way, and Michael Sheen is outstanding as the thoroughly miserable Boldwood.