‘Far from the Madding Crowd’
Director:
Thomas Vinterbergh
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts
Rating: PG-13
4 (out of 5) Globes

The new “Far from the Madding Crowd” is a gutted affair — a full hour shorter than the 1967 film version — but it has a pleasant shape. It’s very much an adaptation, which is to say it takes something and makes it its own beast. It’s an interpretation of a sprawling novel that keeps shifting perspective among a handful of characters, here mostly focusing on fiery proto-feminist Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) and her friend-zoned would-be lover, Gabriel (Matthias Schoenaerts), a pent-up but loyal shepherd she shoots down in the opening scene. She’s too independent, she tells him, but she’s also not that into him, although she may one day be, but also perhaps not. 

That feeling for very specific, sometimes evolving attitudes is one thing screenwriter David Nicholls carries over from the source, and the messiness of emotions is refreshing in any genre, not just the stuffy English lit costume drama. Our feelings aren’t binary, and they definitely aren’t in Thomas Hardy novels. Hardy slips their thoughts into his often dryly witty prose, but they don’t wind up in the dialogue; his characters struggle to use language, but find it a forever insufficient and imprecise vehicle for conveying feelings. Robbed of the author’s own voice, Hardy movies tend to be impossibly grim, and even “Far from the Madding Crowd” — one of his more optimistic works — takes pitiless turns, portraying a world where fortunes can turn at the drop of a hat, and a farm owner can become another’s employer, or a to-be-bride can turn hacking beggar.

For those familiar with the novel, this version can sometimes seem to rush through the plot, which details Bathsheba flitting between three men. Burying his longing while working in her employ, Gabriel watches, largely helpless, as Bathsheba first considers the practical overtures of more moneyed neighbor William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), then dashingly mustachioed Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge), who woos her by wagging his sword in her face. Troy is obviously the Wrong Guy For Her, especially considering “Her” is a practical woman who can’t and won’t be tamed. But that’s also a creative challenge, and you can see on Mulligan’s face someone trying to rationalize her base lust for hot bad boys, deciding it’s charity for a broken man who was jilted, accidentally, as it turns out, by his doomed true boo (Juno Temple).

Nicholls and director Thomas Vinterbergh just barely cram this into two hours, though it never feels Cliffs Notes-y. There’s a feel not only for characters and for actors but for texture of place, and not in the perdy scenic sight-seeing style of grandma movies. Vinterbergh is another Dogme 95 alum (of the stellar “The Celebration”) who now makes handsome productions (like “The Hunt”), and he finds a halfway point between light reinvention of and dedication to tradition. Most of it unfolds outside, and often in dirty clothes; there’s one tony party, but also one raucous wedding do, done in a cramped hall with a low ceiling and caskets of French brandy. There are sun-dappled late afternoon stare sessions, but night gets truly dark, and it’s not afraid to do some modest, only mildly distracting CGI during the scene where Gabriel’s sheep run over a cliff. Schoenaerts, one of our most expressively inexpressive actors, plays him as a man who knows how to distract himself from heartache, and he has his match in Mulligan, who has likely found her so-far peak in the strong but open Bathsheba, who wears her neuroses on her face and, even in disastrous marriage, won’t settle for anything less than what she wants. It’s easy to read this 19th century tale as modern and feminist, but it's even more exciting is how right it gets sloppy, not always sensible emotions.

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