Thomas Hardy’s classic novel Far from the Madding Crowd has been adapted so many times that any new adaptation has to prove its worth. This adaptation from British screenwriter and novelist David Nicholls and Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (Festen, The Hunt) is, thankfully, a smartly and beautifully made film.
Set in the late 1800s in a particularly picturesque, rural part of England, the film tells the story of Bathsheba Everdene. At the film’s beginning, she is living a rather modest life with her aunt. She meets the sheep farmer Gabriel Oak who owns a neighbouring property and the two immediately connect. Even when she becomes the owner of a large working farm and when other men are courting her, Gabriel is always there.
It is a relief that Vinterberg, co-conspirator of fellow Dane Lars von Trier (Melancholia, Nymphomaniac) in creating the iconic Dogme 95 movement, does not indulge in his more far-out tendencies in this film. His touch is clear, though, in the fluid, immediate camera work, the earthiness of the cinematography and sets and the natural sense of ease with which the actors play their roles.
Vinterberg’s style requires nuanced and subtle performances and the cast of this film rise to the challenge with aplomb. Carey Mulligan resembles a younger Emily Watson, playing the central role of Bathsheba Everdene with such strength and complexity that it’s wondrous to behold. Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts does not have a particularly convincing accent as the smitten sheep farmer, but his performance is expressive and likeable. Rounding out the main cast is a wonderfully tormented Michael Sheen and young Tom Sturridge, who perhaps overacts a little when it comes to the snake-like tendencies of the seductive Sergeant Frank Troy.
It’s remarkable how well this story holds up more than a century after it was written. Bathsheba Everdene is a wonderful heroine - a strong and independent woman - which Mulligan represents perfectly while still showing her impetuousness and slight naïveté. The film’s romance feels completely organic, even while one sometimes get the sense that the narrative has been slightly compressed in the transition to the screen.
Almost worth the price of admission alone are the costumes designed by Australian costume designer Janet Patterson, whose work on period pieces like this (especially with Jane Campion) has been repeatedly recognised with award wins and nominations. Mulligan’s slender frame, Shoenaerts’ broad shoulders and Sturridge’s slight body are all draped in jaw-dropping colours and prints that actually complement the mood and trajectory of each and every scene.
Not just a simple adaptation, Far from the Madding Crowd is made with incredible care and craft. Each moment is full of symbolic gestures, crackling dialogue and eloquent, considered visual compositions. It’s an old tale, but this adaptation feels fresh, intriguing and enthralling. Credit to Thomas Hardy’s original story, but also a very, very talented cinematic team.
Far from the Madding Crowd opens in Australian cinemas on June 25, and it is also showing as part of the 2015 Sydney Film Festival. See below for screening times.