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Carey Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdene in Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd.

2.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
David Nicholls
Directed by
Thomas Vinterberg
Starring
Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts and Michael Sheen
Country
USA
Language
English

Before Suzanne Collins gave us The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen, there was Thomas Hardy's Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd, another novel about a rural girl and her career and romantic suitors. Can fans of Twilight and Hunger Games find thrills among 19th-century barn fires and sheep stampedes?

Possibly, though Danish director Thomas Vinterberg's earnestly realistic treatment of Hardy's 1874 novel feels like a missed opportunity to do a country romantic melodrama in grand style. The film opens with voice-over narration from Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) declaring this is a story about a woman's struggle for independence. The sentiment is soon contradicted when Bathsheba declares she needs to be "tamed" by a man. Hardy isn't so easily reduced. While screenwriter David Nicholls (Starter for 10, Great Expectations) provides a bullet-point summary of the book's melodramatic spikes (stampede, fire, storm, murder) in a brisk 119 minutes, it misses the heart of Hardy, the portrait of 19th-century English rural society, the rapturous celebration of nature and the deeply conflicted characters.

The film's major strength is Mulligan's performance as a radiant young woman who is eager for experience and confident beyond her years. ("I shall astonish you all," she tells her workers on the farm she inherited). Her interpretation contrasts sharply with that in the 1967 John Schlesinger adaptation (available on DVD), where Julie Christie played Bathsheba as a whimsical rustic enchantress. Mulligan is relatable, sensible and grounded, at least until her defences are breached by the rakish Sergeant Troy.

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The three suitors are mostly a letdown. Only Michael Sheen as the agonizingly love-sick, middle-aged gentleman farmer, Mr. Boldwood, matches Mulligan's intensity.

In the pivotal role of Gabriel, brooding Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead) is appropriately steady and tree-like, but missing the shepherd's bumpkin charm. Weakest is Tom Sturridge's underdeveloped turn as the caddish Sergeant Troy, too insipid to inspire Bathsheba's ruinous fascination.

Occasionally, Vinterberg captures a tantalizing taste of the novel's madness. For the famous "sword exercise" scene, where where the Sergeant waves his phallic weapon about "the hollow amidst the ferns" while Bathsheba melts, the editing is wonderfully delirious. Here is one of the few moments in the film that reminds us there's more going on in Hardy than another story of an adventurous young woman and her boyfriend challenges.

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