There once was a world where country period dramas with feisty heroines were getting remade every three or four years with the same dusty, uninteresting vision that you would inevitably end up studying in your highschool English class. Then something rather great happened: in the last decade intriguing filmmakers begun reimagining the British classics with an entirely different eye. First there was Joe Wright’s Pride And Prejudice, then Cary Fukunaga’s superb Jane Eyre and even Mike Newell – a director best known for contemporary hits like Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire and Four Weddings And A Funeral – jumped onboard with Great Expectations. Now comes Far From The Madding Crowd from the Danish director behind The Hunt, Thomas Vinterberg, who breathes new life into a 141-year-old story that should be exhausted by now. Alas…
Based on Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, the plot follows the intelligent, charming and very poor Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) who yes, sounds like a supporting character from The Hunger Games. She lives next to possibly the hottest shepherd in the history of the profession – sorry Joseph – Mr Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). He adores her, treats her kindly and with respect. So naturally when he proposes marriage she turns him down. How you can possible turn down a sheep farmer who looks like that and who gives you an adorable baby lamb as a pet, Lord knows. Hot dudes and cute animals are the recipe to success, yet she rejects them because reasons. In a tragic twist of fates, Mr Oak loses his small fortune overnight and Bathsheba inherits one. Some time passes and the pair are reunited after he saves her farm from burning down and he begins working for her, shamed by his lowly position but still holding a major torch.
Then come the sharks, as eligible bachelors with varying degrees of character beginning circling Bathsheba as she starts to make her mark as a confident and competent businesswoman. There’s the silver fox William Blackwood (Michael Sheen) – a brokenhearted but wealthy romantic – and Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) who should have rung alarm bells thanks to the Disney villain moustache. Also, any man who thinks he can cut your weave with his ‘blunt’ sword is not worthy of your time. So what does she do? She ups and marries the moron soldier who – unsurprisingly – turns out to be a disrespectful, gambling scoundrel and borderline abusive prick. He may also have penis diseases, but it’s not properly explained (lest we lose some of the Thomas Hardy charm). She discovers his not-so-side chick (Juno Temple) – who also happens to be with child – and after uncovering a plot where the two planned to run off into the sunset with her money and reputation, things start to turn from bad to worse for Bathsheba. The moral to the story is: do not marry the guy who gropes you in a bush.
Now if anyone dare protest ‘SPOILERS!’ at the above two paragraphs listen, this story is nearly two centuries old. You’ve had two grandmothers life times to get familiar. As for the performances, they are as extraordinary as the performers who deliver them. Mulligan is, as usual, perfection. She’s diminutive and has a physical softness to her, yet she has a true knack for portraying strong and resilient women (Drive, An Education, Never Let Me Go) with such competence she makes Bathsheba – who in the hands of the wrong actress could have been insufferable – a fierce femme that you and all your feminists pals would want to do brunch with. Her Rogues Gallery of man candy is executed seamlessly by Sheen (who brings a quiet sadness to Blackwood), Sturridge (a man who plays bad so well you want to see him in more villain roles) and Schoenaerts (a character actor and true chameleon who manages to be so good in everything he does it’s ruining the curve). The screenplay written by David Nicholls – who coincidentally also wrote the Great Expectations adaptation – focuses on all of the best bits from the book, trimming the uninteresting and expanding the captivating. He manages to make what is one of the earliest feminist narratives interesting and contemporary with pacing and position in a way that reinvigorates the tale. Yet the true star here is Vinterburg and his frequent collaborator in cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Vinterburg conducts the orchestra that is Far From The Madding Crowd with precision and grace, positioning all the moving parts – the performances, the history, the sweeping story, the themes – like a filmmaker whose every move needs to be closely followed. The cinematography is his greatest alley, with the British landscapes captured like a character in the film with Bruus Christensen framing it as friend or foe depending on the moment.
Not to retract from the class of a Thomas Hardy epic, but Far From The Madding Crowd is essentially the story of a woman who keeps tripping over good dick wherever she turns. It makes for surprisingly entertaining fare in the modern age, with Carey Mulligan’s performance a fitting addition to the trio of period power women: Lizzy Bennett, Jane Eyre and now Bathsheba Everdene.
Maria Lewis – follow Maria on Twitter here: @moviemazz or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.