Movie Review: 'Far from the Madding Crowd' (2015)

Movie romance is not dead. At least not if director Thomas Vinterberg’s sumptuous adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s beloved novel has anything to say about it. Only when you see something done so right, can you see how so many others have gotten it so wrong.

Romantic, realistic, wistful and surprisingly suspenseful, 'Far from the Madding Crowd' easily earns the title of 2015’s best film.

One of the aspects that make its story so striking is that an adaptation of a novel published in 1874, has a better handle on modern day, male-female dynamics than anything based or written in the recent past or present.

There are no trite clichés or characters weakened for plot. This is a refreshing tale where the heroine is flawed, the hero truly noble and the outcome unpredictable.

'Far from the Madding Crowd' follows Bathsheba Everdeen (Carey Mulligan), a farm girl with a restless spirit, big ambitions and an immature heart. Over the course of a season spent working on her aunt’s property she develops a friendship with a neighboring shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts).

Readily besotted by the lively Miss Everdeen, he quickly proposes marriage and in her first bad decision, she turns him down and not in the softest way possible. She explains her desire to not be caged by marriage and especially not to a man she does not believe can “tame” her. He withstands her rejection, calm yet wounded. 

Then a reversal of fortune changes their lives overnight; resetting the two on different societal footing when a new day dawns. Oak, having suffered a severe financial setback, moves on to parts unknown and Bathsheba, now an heiress, sets off to run her uncle’s farm.

It is at this point, Miss Everdeen finds herself swimming in an ocean of new possibilities, as her number of prospective suitors, triple. There is the dashing and recently jilted, Sgt. Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge) and the solemnly kind-hearted, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen).

Before long fate draws her and Oak back into each other’s orbit; setting the stage for a quadrangle of engrossing contention. Each man represents a different value; honesty, lust and security and the question becomes which quality, Bathsheba values most.

The best male protagonist to surface in a romantic drama in eons is Oak. Noble, loyal and honest, even when he knows it will cost him. It is this last attribute that Bathsheba, her head spinning from the onslaught of nascent admirers, cannot help circling back to for companionship.

While others in the story want her and say all the right things to obtain her, only one will give it to her straight and risk infuriating her in the process.

One could say that Oak suffers her more than he should and to an extent he does. However, he never truly suffers from her petulance. In a strength rarely given to the current slate of male protagonists peppering romantic dramas, he holds her accountable, and ignores her ensuing tantrums. He offers wisdom in the face of emotionally wrought reasoning and stands up for himself, repeatedly.

Their relationship is that of equals. He does not address her as a gilded flower or fragile damsel. She wants to be treated without kid gloves and he does so, without ever stepping out of gentlemanly bounds to do it.

Yes, it is unrealistic that no other female would take notice. But for the sake of our narrative, Bathsheba is shown as his sole romantic prospect and she is an imperfectly fine one.

Directed with staggering romanticism by Vinterberg, the film gives a rare depiction of Victorian England in jovial times. Stepping away from the castles and queens to a countryside filled with the rustic wonder of farming and all of its invigorating glories.

Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen elegantly captures the shimmer of golden wheat and the lush atmosphere of a verdant forest with identical mastery. The colors are as vibrant in tone as its characters, thus creating some incredibly ravishing visuals.

Only furthering the all-immersive experience is Craig Armstrong’s magnificent score, which is intoxicatingly perceptive in finding a complimentary theme for every on-screen happening. From when Bathsheba experiences her “awakening” to the folksy abandon of rural celebrations.

Armstrong’s phenomenal work conjures every ounce of emotional resonance, one could desire and in a standout musical moment, Carey Mulligan gives a stirring rendition of the aptly selected folk song, 'Let No Man Steal Your Thyme'.

To the film’s credit, it does not go soft on casting. Each actor is the strongest fit for their respective role, all making the fiercest argument on their character’s behalf. This is a film that never resists pulling out all of the stops.

Few can say they have carried off scenes of song, dance, farm work and knife sharpening with the romantic breadth ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ does. Its ambition is modest in scope, mighty in heart and sweepingly powerful, in its totality.

Carey Mulligan gives one of her career-best performances as the film’s vivacious leading lady, managing to find the balance between Everdeen’s somewhat frosty demeanor and her hearty one. She also gives audiences one of the more rarely conveyed emotions to be portrayed by today’s actresses; that of being openly smitten.

Mulligan portrays Bathsheba’s winsome infatuation with her various suitors with loads of genuine feeling and this carries over, into rewarding screen chemistry with each of her co-stars. Her rapport with each actor is different, though equally satisfying. Whether she’s portraying Bathsheba’s feisty camaraderie with Oak, sheepish longing for Sgt. Troy or flattered response to Boldwood; she sells it all.

‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ also gives audiences its best cast, romantic male lead, in ages. While Mulligan makes for a captivating heroine, it is Schoenaerts who dominates the film in a performance that is as sophisticated as it is rugged. Like Mulligan, his portrayal is a rarity in today’s film-scape.

It is sensitive without appearing weak and strong without ever losing its tenderness. For an actor who has displayed such an unbridled ferocity with his roles in ‘Bullhead’ and ‘Rust and Bone’, Schoenaerts demonstrates his range by turning it all down for a performance that is relentlessly disarming in all of its gently layered, warmth.

In the supporting realm, you will find no short supply of great performances either. Michael Sheen gives a heartbreakingly understated performance as the lovelorn Boldwood and in yet another measure that sets itself apart, ‘Far’ gives the audience more than one endearing romantic option, thanks to having Sheen in the mix.

As the other side of the quadrangle, Tom Sturridge gives a debonair turn as the sultry, Troy. While Juno Temple makes the most of her small role as the tragic Fanny; imparting her usual spin of bewitching resilience.

When is the last time you saw a romantic drama that did not feature its leads, either cheating on or with each other? Exactly. Thomas Vinterberg’s staggeringly beautiful adaptation takes a few privileges with Hardy’s novel but gives audiences a seldom realized jewel - a feature presentation that is in many ways an enrichment of its source material.

‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ is not just a masterpiece of romantic drama. It is a master work, period. Rating: 10/10

1 comment

  1. Excellent review and I wholeheartedly agree. "Far from the Madding Crowd" is one of my favorite Hardy novels and the director, cast and crew of the movie has made this one of my favorite movies. I could watch it over and over. Absolutely wonderful.

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