The heroine of Thomas Vinterberg’s intoxicating adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s literary classic, Far from the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba Everdene (an effervescent and headstrong Carey Mulligan) reminded me of one of those cocksure entrepreneurs on Shark Tank who comes in, lights the sharks on fire, instantly gets an amazing offer from one of them, but then hesitates to close the deal because they want to hear all of the offers from the other sharks.
The filmmakers want you to think modernly about Bathsheba, a woman ensconced in patriarchal 19th-century British countryside social mores but waaaaay ahead of her time in thoughts and actions, because otherwise this would be another run-of-the-mill period romance where a woman is swept off her feet. Bathsheba is a truly independent woman (she’s inherited a farm from her uncle, runs it herself, and proudly has no need for a husband) and Mulligan plays her with equal parts girlish coyness and womanly confidence, all sly smiles and looks with a twinkle of her nose, her loose impetuous strands of hair filtering the drunken sunlight splashed across the gorgeous Dorset hills. It’s no wonder every man wants her, and she could command any many she wants.
Yet there’s something screamingly old-fashioned deep down inside her. At one point she asks, no begs, the stoic and faithful shepherd Oaks (a perfectly cast Matthias Schoenaerts who could slay a beast with his eyes) to just tell her what to do, after making remarks earlier in the film questioning his manliness by claiming he could never tame her (oh silly girl, he never wanted to).
The viewer ends up wanting to yell at her, as it’s so clear the first choice, the first offer from Oaks, is the right one. But Bathsheba wasn’t ready, and she needed to turn him down. And while her fortune and confidence grows, her taste in men dwindles to where she’s falling head over heels for a dashing soldier of questionable morals (a suitably dastardly Tom Sturridge) after he wows her in the woods with his swordplay (seriously, could this have been any more blatantly symbolic?) while the kind, gentlemanly, wealthy but slightly emotionally unstable neighbor (an excellent as always Michael Sheen) pines for her at the altar from afar.
We all know how this will and should end. And there’s plenty of high melodrama that gets us to that satisfaction. It’s all crafted so wonderfully and with such delicate but sturdy care, with memorable costumes, a ravishing music score from Craig Armstrong, and your requisite stock scenes (oh the dancing, the singing, the sheep!) and characters (the sassy but doting Liddy played by the great Jessica Barden was my favorite) indicative of this breed of classic tale. But there’s also a breathtaking sequence where a mad border collie steals a flock of sheep in the night and sends them over a cliff. There are fires and thunderstorms and a crime of passion.
Apart from the Oscar-caliber lead performances, Thomas Vinterberg and cinematographer cohort Charlotte Bruus Christensen deliver scene after scene of the gorgeous Dorset countryside full of rolling hills, taunting seaside cliffs, the greenest grass, lavish sunlight and inviting shadows. The majority of the film was shot outdoors, as Kubrick did with Barry Lyndon, and it’s enough to make you want to hop on a plane to England as soon as you step out of the theater.
So scoff if you will at Bathsheba’s indecisiveness and contradictions but be damned if you’re not swept up by this production. In the end, a true modern woman needs no man to tell her what to do, and she’ll find the perfect match in a true modern man who refuses to ask her the question all too many women are a slave to, while proving his intent and worthiness with his actions.
Written by David H. Schleicher