Far from the Madding Crowd (Fox Searchlight, PG-13)

far from_crowd_75While is possession of an interesting story, this film basically begs for traditional costume drama treatment, a big glossy production, and the general trappings of modern melodramas.

 

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It’s confusing as to why Danish director Thomas Vinterberg came to helm the new film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd—previously, Vinterberg’s two best-known films were rough little numbers that dealt at least in part with child molestation (1998’s The Celebration, which was the first film made under the tenets of Dogme 95, and 2012’s The Hunt, which was an Oscar nominee in the Foreign-Language Film category). Far from the Madding Crowd, while is possession of an interesting story, basically begs for traditional costume drama treatment, a big glossy production, and the general trappings of modern melodramas.

The screenplay was adapted by David Nicholls, whose work on the film makes more sense—among other things, he previously adapted the Hardy novel Tess of D’Urbervilles into a BBC miniseries. Our cast is led by Carey Mulligan, one of the very best actresses working right now (who is presently on Broadway in the play Skylight, to much acclaim), who here plays Bathsheba Everdene, a strong young woman in 19th Century England who is uninterested in getting married, despite being young, pretty, and with more than her share of suitors. Instead, she is interested in owning and maintaining a farm on her own. (A topical plot, what with Kate Bolick’s book Spinster popping up on the bestseller list right now.) Most of the conflict in the film comes in the form of men who try to woo Bathsheba, most of whom are portrayed more or less sympathetically, to both Bathsheba and the viewers, which complicates hers and our feelings for them. The first to knock on her proverbial door is neighboring farm owner Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts, of Bullhead and Rust & Bone), then comes along another neighboring farm owner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and then Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge) makes a play for her affections. Schoenaerts and Sheen are both likeable enough fellows, but the film abruptly dies every time Sturridge is on the screen—his character is intentionally made out to be the least-likeable of the bunch, but he winds up being unlikeable in an irritating way, and not a compelling way.

Far from the Madding Crowd is an exceptionally dark movie, visually. It’s one of those that, if you wait until it’s on home video or on demand, you’ll have trouble making out on your television screen if there’s any light in the room at all. As it was for me, I spent a fair amount of time squinting at the screen, even in the darkened movie theatre. This is the odd movie to have been shot by a female director of photography, Charlotte Bruus Christensen (who also shot the much better-done The Hunt), and it pains me to say that her work here is lacking—you get the impression that a lot of the shots were going for rapturous, but wound up being hammy.

In the end, Far from the Madding Crowd is a worthwhile film, but most of this rests on the shoulders of Ms. Mulligan and the duo of Mr. Schoenaerts and Mr. Sheen. Vinterberg is more than a capable director, but here for the first time in his career he feels more like a director-for-hire than an auteur. | Pete Timmermann

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