Watching a film like “Far from the Madding Crowd,” the fourth such film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic 1874 novel (most notably starring Julie Christie in 1967), makes you realize how much novelists do not write romantic sagas like that anymore. Today, if you were to ask the current demographic shopping for romance novels what the ideal literary love story would be, they will probably go populist and tell you something by Nicholas Sparks. Some, who are truly lost, might even drop a label towards E.L. James with “Fifty Shades of Grey.” If you have seen this past winter’s “Grey” blockbuster and the majority of the films based on Sparks’s books, then you’re likely seeing readily apparent weaknesses compared to the storied classics from over a century ago that still marvel readers today. It is a different era now, but taking the opportunity to revisit the works of Hardy, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, D.H. Lawrence, or even Hemingway or Graham Greene a generation later, on either the page or the silver screen, will show you the real language of romance and writing. When done right, there are few things better.
The prose and tasteful passion captured by the classic writers then put the tawdry and repetitive theatrics of today’s writers to shame. In that same regard, so too do solid film adaptations that tap the proper classic roots. “Far from the Madding Crowd” is a stellar example of this. The film is playing now in limited release in downtown art-house locations in Chicago. Permeating with possibilities and charged with the right measure of passion in every engrossing layer, Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s film stands head and shoulders above the feeble likes of today’s lesser efforts of cinematic literary romance. It’s cliche to say, but they don’t make them like they used to and this film proves it.
Academy Award nominee Carey Mulligan stars in this film as Bathsheba Everdene, a spirited, untamed, and independent woman for her era (and, yes, her name was the inspiration for a certain “Hunger Games” heroine). She has recently acquired through inheritance her family’s expansive farm. She’s a noblewoman trying to stand her ground in a man’s world. Before her inheritance elevated her social class, she was once a commoner romanced by a smitten and honorable shepherd named Gabriel Oak, played by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts of “Rust and Bone” and “The Drop.” Not looking to be tied down in her younger days, Miss Everdene dismissed his confident proposal for marriage with youthful fancy.
Around the same time as Bathsheba’s inheritance, a tragic accident costs Mr. Oak his farm and lands. While penniless and looking for work, he comes to the aid of a burning farm and heroically saves the barn containing the year’s harvest. Low and behold, the farm he saves belong to Ms. Everdene. Taking pity on his need and rekindling their friendship, Ms. Everdene offers Mr. Oak a job to stay on and work the farm. Ever pining to watch over her, Mr. Oak accepts and elevates himself to be best among the farm’s staff.
Meanwhile, Ms. Everdene’s sterling reputation as a farmer and leader grows. She begins attracting the attention of the town’s most wealthy eligible bachelor, her neighboring landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen of “The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon,” and “Midnight in Paris”). Spurred by the joke of a mystery valentine sent by Bathsheba, William becomes head over heels for her. Though older, he propositions a marriage of convenience to Ms. Everdene that she avoids. As if two men were not enough, her whirlwind introduction to the dashing young soldier Sergeant Frank Troy (relative newcomer Tom Sturridge of “On the Road” and “Pirate Radio”) weakens the romantic indifference that Bathsheba normally carries.
Masterfully directing that stellar cast through a concise and taut adapted screenplay from British novelist David Nicholls, director Thomas Vinterberg endlessly impresses with a complete and sweeping film. Blending classical wide shots with handheld closeup camera work from Vinterberg’s partnering cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen to soak in the Dorset English coastal hills, “Far from a Madding Crowd” has an intimate natural beauty that matches its subject. Prolific Scottish composer and frequent Baz Luhrmann collaborator Craig Armstrong (“Romeo + Juliet,” “Moulin Rouge!,” “Ray”) ties that all together and sets the mood with a rustic-yet-opulent musical score. The flaws in the delivery are hard to find.
The central narrative energy that fuels “Far from the Madding Crowd” comes from the dueling courtship of these three suitors towards Bathsheba Everdene at various points in her new life. The prize of Carey Mulligan is just the first step of brilliant casting by Vinterberg. There’s a certain twinkle in the wrinkle of her smile and a sparkle in her eye that is undeniably captivating. Her appeal is not one of va-va-voom topical superficiality. She’s not a walking stuffed corset preening for melodrama. Her draw is more minimalist, powered by the emotional longing she seems to wear on her sleeve in so many of her roles. If you didn’t already fall in love with her soulfully serenading in 2011’s “Shame,” her work here might put you over the top because she sings again and steals hearts in the process. Schoenaerts, Sheen, and Sturridge should all be so lucky.
That they are. This is Mulligan’s picture, but the men hold their own just fine. All three suitors are pitch perfect. Young Tom Sturridge is an exuberant new talent that easily catches your eye embodying the volatile handsome temptation. Michael Sheen is a consummate veteran who can play anything, but gets the ripe chance here to balance his winning smile with a forlorn shell of patience. Let the ladies tell you this next. The real catch here is Matthias Schoenaerts. Schoenaerts is likely new to most American audiences. They will get their longest look at the 37-year-old Belgian in the upcoming HBO miniseries “Lewis and Clark” coming next year, but all of you need to seek out 2012’s “Rust and Bone” co-starring Oscar winner Marion Cotillard to really be impressed if you’ve never seen him before “Far from the Madding Crowd.”
Some misinformed and undernourished audience members that don’t know any better are going to think all Matthias Schoenaerts is doing is channeling a little “As You Wish” Wesley routine from “The Princess Bride.” Honey, you just don’t get it if you think only that. There’s a great deal more going on behind that body language and stoic dialogue Matthias’s devoted, unwavering eyes and his aura of contemplative commitment as Mr. Oak grab you in every scene he is in. He doesn’t need six-pack abs or hunky cliches to win you over. He just has to be true to chivalrous core of that decent man he is portraying. That’s all you really need. Maybe that’s exactly what’s missing in modern romances: chivalry and decency. If you’re missing those qualities in your life, come find “Far from the Madding Crowd” and get enriched once again.
Lesson #1: The uphill battle of independent women in the 19th century— Never too at risk of infusing the feminism of today into the 1874 novel material on display, this film gives you a look at the life of a rare woman in power from nearly a century-and-a-half ago. Little was expected of them and even less was respected among their male peers of the same social class. Heaven forbid independent women such as this eschew marriage and tell men no. Gossip was an equal enemy then as it is now for independent women. They always had to work harder and better than their male counterparts to get proper notice and a chance at equal treatment. Even then, outworking them might risk showing up those same counterparts, causing a reception of jealousy rather than mutual respect.
Lesson #2: The many motivations for marriage in this period— Spinning off of one element of Lesson #1 is the notion of the competing motivations for women to marry in this day and age in “Far from the Madding Crowd.” Bathsheba Everdene has three suitors of three different backgrounds. each of which press a certain trigger for her desire to find a suitable husband. Frank Troy represents both that perceived dignity of a man in uniform and the excitement of a younger man and equal. William Boldwood personifies marrying for wealth, status, convenience, and position in more of a business decision of financial comfort where being a wife is secondary to title and holdings. Lastly, Gabriel Oak, despite his lower rung on the nobility ladder, represents marrying affection, friendship, and loyalty. The motivations matching all three potential mates are all real and possible scenarios for this period and even still somewhat today.
Lesson #3: Earning respect and earning love go hand in hand— For all of the talk of time period, this lesson rings true of courtship even today. Earning one’s respect goes a long way towards earning their attraction and their heart. You can argue that a mutual respect should always come first in a relationship. Each partner should be willing to respect their significant other and what constitutes them, whether it’s their profession, passion, beliefs, etc. Of the three potential suitors for Ms. Everdene, all quickly learn that to woo an independent woman such as her, you have to catch her eye first, her respect second, and her heart third. Each of the three men go about their respect in a different way which matters as to who wins Bathsheba’s heart in the end.