Sometimes the casting of a literary adaptation serves its box office better than its source material. Early in this new version of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, independent-minded Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) refuses a marriage proposal from soft-spoken sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). After all, she barely knows him — and besides, she declares, "I will not be any man's property."
That's all well and good — even radical in the 1870 setting. But we all know the heroines of most of these old-timey novels eventually do choose a husband, right? And as the strapping Belgian actor gazes at Mulligan with soulful Ryan Gosling eyes, we may suspect the filmmakers have stacked the deck. Besides being a hunk, Oak is an excellent listener and good with animals. He's named for the sturdiest of trees, for God's sake. Far from the madding crowd, how much better is a girl likely to do?
In short, viewers who approach Far From the Madding Crowd like a Jane Austen adaptation may find its heroine a little dense. But Hardy is not Austen. His novels are as likely to end tragically as festively, and his plots tend to be overshadowed by their richly detailed settings. Rather than highlighting sparkling dialogue — Austen's strength — a Hardy adaptor needs to do justice to the author's vivid set pieces of rural life and his fixation on the cruelties of happenstance.
Director Thomas Vinterberg (best known for The Celebration) has a strong grasp of setting, as he showed in The Hunt (2012), a film as much about Danish rural traditions as about its ostensible subject. Here he highlights the pastoral Dorset countryside and crafts memorable images: a beach at sunrise littered with the corpses of sheep; the erotic dimness of the wood where Bathsheba is courted by sword-wielding soldier Troy (Tom Sturridge).
Mulligan gives a sympathetic performance as the young woman who — like Henry James' Isabel Archer — turns down two marriage proposals only to be beguiled by a third suitor who all but comes with flashing warning signs. Bathsheba meets her second admirer, an older property owner (Michael Sheen), after she herself has inherited a rich estate. But the lonely man's obsession with her can't compete with young Troy's sheer sexual aggressiveness, which catches her off guard.
Some of the film's transitions are jarring, making us wonder if characters' motivations were left on the cutting-room floor. The subplot involving Troy's first love (Juno Temple), for instance, comes across as creaky Victorian contrivance when it should be a source of genuine pathos.
When it comes to Bathsheba, Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls make the better choice of placing her devotion to running her thriving farm front and center, so we see that her indecisiveness about marriage doesn't just stem from whim or vanity. Rather, like any business owner, she's concerned about the many laborers for whose fates she's responsible — a rare position for a heroine of 19th-century fiction, and a relatable one.
The only character who matches Bathsheba in sheer devotion to agriculture is — take a guess — her first spurned suitor, who becomes her employee after his own reversal of fortune. While the resulting social barriers to their romance mattered enormously in Hardy's era, modern viewers may be more likely to roll their eyes as they wait for Bathsheba to figure out who the real Mr. Right is.
When the inevitable arrives, it arrives with the same grace and simplicity that mark the rest of the film; no one walks off into Technicolor sunsets here. While Vinterberg hasn't fully succeeded in giving the novel's plot a modern currency or urgency, he has created a painterly, Hardy-esque world that transcends stereotypes of bucolic beauty — and whose bewitching half-light clings to us as we leave the theater.