“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language, which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”
In a 180-degree tone turnaround for the ages, Dogme darling Thomas Vinterberg has followed up the bleak, chilling The Hunt with a vivid period romance film. It was probably good for his mental health, and it’s even better for film lovers, since it gives them a viable alternative on a weekend deep in the shadow of Avengers. Far from the Madding Crowd possesses nary a hint of self-consciousness about being an enthusiastic swooner. An 1800s-set drama, it embraces all the fancy dresses, longing glances, and maneuvering of manners that period dramas are both known and mocked for.
Carey Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdene, a well-to-do Victorian lady with an active disinterest in courtship. She’d rather tend to the management of her farm, recently handed over to her via a relative’s will, than deal with suitors. In that respect, her no-nonsense, reliable, respectful friend Gabriel Oaks (Matthias Schoenearts) would probably make a good match for her. And indeed, he once proposed to Bathsheba back when she had nothing and he was just a neighbor, but she let him down gently. Now he helps her run the farm while she deals with the attentions of two other men: prim Nice Guy William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and brash soldier Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge).
The 2004 Pride and Prejudice probably saved the modern period romance when it chose to revel in the gorgeous English countryside rather than confine itself to the indoors. Madding Crowd follows this examples, incorporating the elements itself into its story. Blustering rain, wind, and snow give voice to the emotions suppressed under Victorian propriety. The shifting seasons shepherd us through passing time as Bathsheba and Gabriel’s relationship evolves. The weather acts both as an expression and an instigator for them, such as when a tempestuous storm on the night of her marriage celebration to another man first literalizes the conflict between them, and then brings them together as they cooperate to save the farm’s vulnerable hay from being ruined.
Though there are three different men in play, this isn’t a love rectangle. It’s obvious from early on that Bathsheba and Gabriel are perfect for one another, but social standards, denial, pettiness, and circumstance keep them apart most of the time. This is romance built not on gooeyness and banter but on extended gazes, small gestures, and lots and lots of moments where the pair in question aren’t kissing, but you know they both really want to, and you really really want them to. It’s sustained tension that’s greater than what you’ll find in most horror films. And it’s not just for the central love story — there’s a scene in which Troy seduces Bathsheba with his deft swordplay (not a euphemism) that’s utterly breathtaking.
But the film has more than bedroom eyes on its mind. In fact, most of the plot concerns Bathsheba’s struggles to be accepted as an independent woman. Even her indecisive romantic whims are spun out of this. Her inheritance has put her in an unusual position of privilege for a woman in her environment, and she’s conscious of the potential to ruin it. Much of her dealings with the men in her life are complicated by her learning to deal with the tricky fallout of her actions.
Mulligan is rather fantastic in the role. She gets to carry her character through a variety of different fortunes and attitudes, luxuriating in the complexity. Bathsheba gets to be canny, authoritative, compassionate, but also sometimes short-sighted, inconsiderate, or hypocritical. She’s sympathetic without being one-dimensional, and multi-faceted without being inconsistent.
Opposite her intense gaze is Schoenearts, whose Gabriel’s steadfastness to Bathsheba could never be mistaken for weirdo clinginess. The man’s stolid yet sensitive masculinity is some wonderfully subtle work. I want this guy in everything. Sturridge makes for a good lout, and Sheen is fascinating in the pitiful depths to which he stoops. He worships Bathsheba, not understanding that good people don’t want to be treated as gods or goddesses.
In condensing a nearly-500-page novel to less than two hours, Far from the Madding Crowd certainly feels, well, condensed. It will jump a week or months in one cut without pausing for breath. The score is breathless and swift to match. The movie knows when to slow down, but it never wallows in one moment for too long. It’s sometimes too much to take, and the sense of nuance lost is apparent, but the film knows what business it’s about, and wishes to get to it posthaste. What a wonderful time to be had.