You can listen to a podcast review of this film here.
In late nineteenth century rural England a coquettish, strong-willed but ultimately kind young girl called Bathsheba Everdene rejects the earnest proposal of a good but apparently rather dull sheep-farmer called Gabriel Oak. She goes on to inherit a large farm and surprises the county by running it herself, although relying very heavily on Oak's advice in his reduced position of shepherd. Oak must watch guiltily fend off the proposals of the rich austere Mr Boldwood, to whom she has sent a valentine in a fit of pique little suspecting the deeply passionate and obsessive response it would provoke. Worse still, both Oak and Boldwood have to watch her marry the feckless and cruel Sergeant Troy, a man who has already ruined the poor maid Fanny Robbin.
This is, of course, the story of Thomas Hardy's most famous novel, Far From The Madding Crowd, and the iconic 1967 film adaptation directed by John Schlesinger, starring Julie Christie as Bathsheba and Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp as her three lovers. That film is so beloved and so well-acted and photographed that a remake felt almost superfluous, but I am pleased to report that it has its own charms.
Director Thomas Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls have stuck very close to the novel, with almost all of the dialogue and set piece scenes coming straight from the book. The only question is what to cut to fit a standard running time and my only criticism is that their cuts have tended to favour screen time between Oak and Bathsheba at the expense of Troy and Boldwood. This has, in turn, made for a film that isn't as dark as the novel. The character of Troy in particular is softened by not showing his cruel rejection of Fanny at the church early on, and in particular by omitting the scene in which Boldwood tries to buy him off. We don't see his petty mean-ness and we also don't see Boldwood's possessive obsession. That the character of Boldwood survives these cuts far better than Troy speaks to the casting. Where Tom Sturridge feels too young, too slight, too callow and limpid for Troy, Martin Sheen is simply majestic as Boldwood. In a few short scenes we feel exactly the tragedy of a good man slipping into a feverish possessive passion - and worst of all his awareness of how absurd his situation must scene among the villagers.
What else is there to like in this film? Carey Mulligan is superb as Bathsheba - pretty, wilful, mischievous and then rueful but never quite as vain as I think she should be early on. Some reviewers have taken against Matthias Schoenaerts as Oak because of his Belgian accent but I thought he embodied the slow patient strength of Oak remarkably well. In terms of the production design, I loved the costumes, the use of the landscape and the authentic feeling of being in a small rural town, even if the crowd scenes are of necessity much curtailed. The score is lovely.
When I think of the Schlesinger version of the film, what I think it gets so right is the balance of all three lovers - all three are played by strong and charismatic actors - Stamp most of all. The only real problem with this film is the imbalance of it. I kept wondering what it would have been like if Matthew Goode, who had originally been offered the role, had taken it. It would've been pretty much perfect.
FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD has a running time of 119 minutes and is rated PG-13. The film is on release in Denmark, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, Ireland and the USA. It goes on release in the Netherlands on May 7th, in Iraq and the Ukraine in May 14th, in Belgium on May 20th, in France on June 3rd, in Hungary on June 11th, in Brazil and Greece on June 25th, in Romania on June 26th, in Kazakhstan, Russia and Singapore on July 2nd, in Spain, Lithuania and Norway on June 6th, in the Philippines in July 8th, in Germany, Israel and Portugal on July 9th, in Austria on July 10th, in Poland on July 17th, in Sweden on July 31st, in Italy on September 10th, in Macedonia and Serbia on October 22nd.