Like the 1874 novel on which it is based, the latest screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” has so many melodramatic plot twists that it’s almost laughable.
Yet we don’t laugh. Romance, tragedy and social insight percolate throughout this story of a woman who revels in and suffers because of her stubborn independence.
The success of the book — and any film based on it — lies in Hardy’s ahead-of-his-times feminism, his depiction of subtle psychological states and the beauty of his language (or visual style, in the case of a movie).
With Carey Mulligan as the strong-willed Bathsheba Everdene and a supporting cast of mostly solid players, the new “Far From the Madding Crowd” nicely balances those elements.
But a warning: Those who fondly recall John Schlesinger’s 1967 version with Julie Christie may find the approach of director Thomas Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls too muted and subdued.
The earlier film had big dramatic moments and oozed a pastoral passion eagerly embraced by its major stars (Christie, Peter Finch, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp). But the Danish Vinterberg, a founder of Scandinavia’s austere Dogme 95 film movement, aims for low-key realism rather than high drama.
We first encounter Bathsheba on horseback. She is riding in the proper sidesaddle fashion, but when she’s sure nobody is watching, Bathsheba throws a leg over the big beast and takes off on a glorious gallop — man-style.
That scene and her encounter with a neighboring shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), establish her as a woman with big aspirations, even if she has no idea of how to achieve them.
When after just one encounter Oak asks her to marry him, Bathsheba turns him down.
“I would hate to be some man’s property,” she says, adding, “You would grow to despise me.”
It becomes a familiar pattern. Gents propose after one or two meetings, much to the dismay of our heroine, who early on inherits a large farm and is determined to run it as efficiently as any man. (“It is my intention to astonish you all.”)
She’s courted by the lovesick Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a middle-aged bachelor of fabulous wealth who wants nothing more than to take care of Bathsheba. He’s sweet and sincere but can’t grasp that she’s her own boss. This will have tragic consequences.
Faring somewhat better is the red-coated Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge), a charming wastrel who woos her with an erotically charged display of swordsmanship.
And always off to one side is Oak, who through financial and relationship reversals remains by Bathsheba’s side as a faithful employee and brutally honest confidant.
The film’s menfolk range from the quietly thoughtful and innately honorable (Schoenaerts) to the painfully naive (Sheen) to the infuriatingly shallow (Sturridge, who cannot begin to match Stamp’s swashbuckling arrogance in the Christie version).
But it’s Mulligan’s Bathsheba who gives the film its center, providing us with an utterly modern woman fighting the constraints of a Victorian world.
One thing this “Madding Crowd” has going for it: It moves like a rocket.
The 1967 version ran for almost three hours — and sometimes felt like it. Vinterberg and Nicholls have eliminated subplots and compressed the action to tell their story in just under two hours. But they’ve done so without sacrificing key elements or major themes.
The film looks splendid, with Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography capturing both the beauty of the English countryside and the warmth of candle-lit interiors.
Craig Armstrong’s musical score effectively channels Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and traditional English folk songs for a sound that is alternately romantically expansive and down-to-earth rural.
No, this isn’t the definitive “Madding Crowd.” But then that’s the wonderful thing about great literature — generations of filmmakers have an opportunity to reinterpret a classic through the lens of their own time and place.
(At the Glenwood Arts, Palace, Studio 30.)
‘FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD’
Rated PG-13 | Time: 1:59