Light spoilers ahead. Nothing that will expose the story in its entirety but some plot points need to be revealed to explain certain opinions.
The payoff of having an independent and powerful character is the insistence that they remain independent but somehow adapt and make compromises in the end of the story. Such compromises are only initiated, though, by the agency of such an independent character. Many times characters embodying these traits are muddled up by the third act of the story, lost in the increasing speed of plot progression and narrative finality, losing the independence to form a gift-wrapped ending. Very few films miss this pitfall, and Thomas Vinterberg’s new rendition of “Far From the Madding Crowd,” falls ultimately, but with grace and beauty. There is a lot to like in this film, but it has its fair share of narrative convenience that ultimately undermines a magnetically powerful character in Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba Everdeen. Yes, this Everdeen is the inspiration for that Everdeen.
Bathsheba is independent, and when humble shepherd Gabriel Oak (played with warmth by Matthias Shoenhaerts) asks for her hand in marriage early on, Bathsheba quickly rejects the notion of such rituals and the notion of a man dominating her life. After a extravagant reversal of fortune between the two characters in which Bathsheba acquires a large estate from her late uncle and Gabriel loses his flock in a startling effective scene, she hires him as the head shepherd for her estate but now her independent ways will be challenged by a whole new sphere of societal pressures. It doesn’t help that she jokingly interacts with this new sphere in a haphazard way, catching the eye of William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a middle-aged, successful man with desperate undertones. While her independent strength holds on fairly well, the shell it created to cover up sensual naivety breaks when she, literally, stumbles upon a third suitor in Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge). Of course, complications arise.
Threads and moments in the story become unsatisfying or bizarre mainly because both the logic of the story starts to wear and the thinness of the male characters begins to show. In regards to the first point, the film early on leads us to believe that Bathsheba and Gabriel are meant for each other. While that formulates some disappointment of predictability, the process by which we get to that end result can still hold up. Nevertheless, that expectation is there, and there are times when the other two suitors are in play that Bathsheba wants to marry and the only logical choice for her would be Gabriel to the point where some of her decisions throughout the story that almost completely undermines her capabilities to challenge the male status quo. I was never convinced that the other suitors really deserved her attention, maybe Boldwood, but certainly not Troy, unjustifiable given the brevity of his screen time.
That brings us to the male characters. While Shoenhaerts character is full and elegant, that only reinforces the predictability of the plot because in comparison to Boldwood and Troy, the latter two are only superficial themes in a form of a character. Sheen seems to be directed for the sole purpose to justify his actions in the end of the film and Sturridge’s Troy is conveniently in one frame of mind and then conveniently in another frame of mind only to make certain plot points move on with fluidity, ultimately dumbing down a character whose idea of love and desire show dollops of vulnerable complexion. Thus, by the end of it, it is almost too clear how the story would and should turn out and even at that point the script makes it even easier for the female lead, which, in the end, softens her own powerful nature.
What are we left with? Without giving too much a way, and understanding that expressing a wish fulfilling idea is not common in a proper review, I wanted Bathsheba to orchestrate the ending she was seeking, I wanted her to take the initiative in acting romantic. Instead, she settles for a “Pride and Prejudice” sort of ending in which the man ultimately takes over; the strength highlighted in the beginning of the film seems almost defunct. With the release of a film like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” feminist themes have more space to work with and should be explored with more vigor if the story allows it. I think this story allows it, though I am not familiar with the source material authored by Thomas Hardy. At some points, I felt like the script was going down a list of phrases for Bathsheba to say that to invoke her feminist qualities, playing out like memes instead of truthful convictions. Mulligan, one of my favorite actors, does a substantial job to cover hints of inconsistencies but it is not enough.
The film looks beautiful though, with a colorful palette elaborating the rolling English hills and the golden nature of the sun beaming through the moist forests. A lushness continuously expresses itself in the landscape of the story and the cinematography (Charlotte Bruus Christensen) interacts well with the landscape. For the most part, the camera interacts with the main players effectively, though there are some times where we see characters in profile during crucial scenes, denied any chance to see their eyes and peer into their souls. In addition, the music springs to life and echoes a sense of ambition, driving Mulligan’s character but never impeding her momentum.
Again, there is a lot to like in this film. The performances are great despite the thinness and there are moments of bliss that reveal traits of wondrous traits of a more ambiguous romanticism this film is reaching for. Vinterberg, who was made famous by the now defunct Dogme 95 cinematic school of thought, may not have directed the characters as effectively as he could, but the film still carries with it a sense of intrigue that many moviegoers will latch on to and enjoy. In the end, empty space was left unattended, space that could have been used to endow Bathsheba with free-spirited rigor, with a knack to make things happen instead of have things happen all around her. She turns to Gabriel throughout the film for advice on relationships. A part of me wanted her to be confident in her own thoughts and feelings and to go with it. Oh, those moments where I just wish.