All period films should feel as urgent as Thomas Vinterberg’s “Far from the Madding Crowd.” Though the story might take place in Victorian England, none of the characters ever feel preserved in amber. This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel illuminates present-day issues faced by women as they seek agency and independence through a heroine, Carey Mulligan’s Batsheba Everdene, who bristles with the norms of her time.
You would think, in the 140 years since the novel’s publication, that the world has progressed some in respecting the dignity of women. But alas, two chauvinists sitting next to me served as a potent reminder of just how necessary this story continues to be. In their eyes, any decision Batsheba made that did not lead her down a path of submission or domesticity evinced that she was a reckless whore.
Bathsheba never aligns herself as opposed to the institution of marriage; at one point, she memorably remarks that she would be a bride if she didn’t have to get a husband. Her needs are rather peculiar due to a unique set of circumstances that grants her ownership of a sizable portion of land in the English countryside. Rather than surrender the property to an able-bodied man, Bathsheba possesses enough self-confidence to run the farm herself.
That certainty and decisiveness does not extend into the romantic arena, however. Bathsheba has no shortage of suitors, ranging from the earnest farmhand Gabriel (Matthias Schoenaerts) to aggressive military man Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge) and the kindly fellow landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). While she likes various aspects of what they might offer her – devotion, excitement, security – Bathsheba cannot summon the will to surrender some of her self-sufficiency to one of these men.
At different stages of her journey, she strongly craves what one brings to the table (“You make her hornier than I do” was an imaginary line of dialogue by the misogynists next to me during an exchange between two suitors) but remains certain only in her uncertainty. Mulligan pulls off her complicated character with an exquisitely graceful dignity. She plays Bathsheba as assertive but never bossy and finds a resolute strength in her irresolute tendencies. Like the film as a whole, Mulligan upholds and affirms every woman’s right to waver, wander, and wonder the same as any man.
Only the cinematography in “Far From the Madding Crowd,” a stunning display of pastoral beauty lensed by Charlotte Bruus Christensen, rivals this depressingly relevant message. She shoots the hills like most period pieces display ornate costumes, though Christensen’s photography proves much more thrilling because the land is such a pivotal part of the story.
Vinterberg, too, deserves lauding for his work in making the film as vibrant as it is. Working from David Nicholls’ script, which adheres the letter of the novel, he could have easily directed characters like figures in a “Living History” display that speak old period vernacular. Yet he finds a way to make them human and alive, mostly by allowing the present to bleed into the past and prompt a reflection on issues far too important to seal off behind museum glass. A- /