In this film, a woman can be willful and strong but she’s incomplete without a man’s affection. Madding, indeed.
What is it about a plucky girl in period garb that we can’t resist? Whether it’s Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennet, Reese Witherspoon’s Becky Sharp or Mia Wasikowksa’s Jane Eyre, there is something compelling about a modern starlet playing dress up. Adding to that list, we now have Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba Everdene, the strong-willed Thomas Hardy heroine and inspiration for the name Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games franchise. In Far From the Madding Crowd, Mulligan’s fetching Bathsheba strives for independence and breaks a bevy of hearts along the way. It’s a mild and sometimes amusing film but its philosophy toward women and history is as narrow as a corset.
When the film opens, the spirited Bathsheba rides a horse through a verdant countryside. Her introductory voiceover is barely over before she catches the eye of neighboring sheep farmer, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), who apparently wandered in from the page of a Levi’s ad. Through a series of wistful gazes, their chemistry is confirmed. He proposes marriage and – gasp – Bathsheba says no. She prefers her freedom.
Gabriel spirals into a case of unrequited love while Bathsheba inherits her uncle’s farm (young people in the 19th century are always inheriting things). In her new position as landowner, Bathsheba oversees the staff and assists with the grounds. In one scene, she negotiates the price of her grains in a male-dominated marketplace. Sheryl Sandberg would be proud. But the film is less concerned with social politics and more focused on Bathsheba’s love life. In addition to Gabriel, who has become a loyal helper on the Everdene farm, Bathsheba enthralls the priggish bachelor, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). He’s rich and well bred but with his bushy facial hair and anxious brow, he’s the opposite of dashing. And then there’s Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a seductive solider who whispers sweet nothings in her ear. With his devilish moustache and piercing eyes, he’s the sexiest villain of 1874.
Director Thomas Vinterberg makes a drastic departure from his previous film, the superb Danish drama, The Hunt, about a man accused of child abuse and forced to confront a different kind of madding crowd. His direction is unflashy and for the most part, it remains as tasteful as a Victorian dining room. When the romantic tensions rise, however, his camera swoops into the steamy action. He lingers on swooning eyes, trembling lips and heated embraces. Propriety is a breeding ground for desire and Far From is comically well suited to an audience of bored housewives.
Far from the Madding Crowd was shot entirely on film and it shows. Photography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen creates a winsome environment of glinting sunlight, vast hillside and endless sky. The vividness of the textures, colors and landscapes helps hold our attention when the script lags. The score by Craig Armstrong is a sweeping, if traditional, complement to the buffet of emotions onscreen. And emotions are aplenty. The dim light, brawny men and lusty expressions create a subtext that’s dense with sexual suggestion.
Far From wants to celebrate a strong and self-determined heroine but the film’s feminism is a prop in its game of courtship. Bathsheba rolls up her sleeves and gets messy with the boys but her biggest dilemma is figuring out which man to marry. In the end, Bathsheba capitulates to the same gender norms we know and do not love. Her final decision gives in to the very customs she vowed to resist. Period pieces often say more about today’s society than the one on screen. According to Far From, a woman can be willful and strong but she’s incomplete without a man’s affection. Madding, indeed.