DIR: Thomas Vinterberg • WRI: David Nicholls • PRO: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich • DOP: Charlotte Bruus Christensen • ED: Claire Simpson • MUS: Craig Armstrong • DES: Kave Quinn • CAST: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple
Undoubtedly acclaimed filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg has had a somewhat fractured relationship with directing films in the English language, his previous two attempts, It’s All About Love (2003) and Dear Wendy (2005), mercilessly panned by critics and audiences. Obviously wounded by both experiences, it has taken ten years for Vinterberg to venture near English-language films, instead carving a celebrated career in his native tongue. However, in Far From the Madding Crowd, not only does the highly eccentric Dane revisit a language that has somewhat stained his otherwise accomplished filmography but he perversely provokes himself by undertaking an adaptation of one of the most revered quintessential British novels of all time and a novel that has already been exhausted by adaptations across the board in popular culture.
Carey Mulligan stars as the proud and willful Bathsheba Everdene, who has vowed to retain her independence and remain unwed. She lives and works with her aunt on a small farm and appears content with her uncomplicated life. When her uncle leaves his prosperous farm to her in his will, she becomes mistress of the land, relishing in her fortune and autonomy. Owing to her beauty and spirit, Bathsheba becomes the focus of many a suitor, including the dignified and stoical Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) whom she has already refused to wed, the wealthy but demoralized William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and gambling reprobate, ex-Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). All three men determine on taming and marrying Bathsheba, challenging her to succumb to her latent desires or retain her cherished freedom, throwing her into a complete entangled state of affairs.
With the spate of period dramas oversaturating both film and television industries in recent years, it can be quite exhausting for sated audiences to muster up enthusiasm for yet another period drama adaptation and for a director to root out some unchartered element to inject into a formulaic genre that refuses to be tampered with. However, with an idiosyncratic, art-house cinema virtuoso at the helm, it is reasonable to expect that Vinterberg’s aberration in directing Far From the Madding Crowd could transgress and alter the conventions of the traditional period drama by bringing a distinctive avant-garde style to a staid and stubborn genre. Alas, such expectations are not met and this is owing to Vinterberg’s reluctance to challenge the conventions of a cinematic genre in the manner in which he has founded his entire career upon, which comes as a complete disappointment.
The screenplay adaptation does not deviate in any way from its source material; therefore those familiar with the novel should not expect any narrative rude awakenings. Such an inflexible adaptation results in a rather half-hearted screenplay that lacks the energy of its source novel, failing to arouse or thrill on any level. That screenwriter David Nicholls harbours a fear of alienating ardent period drama / Hardy enthusiasts by reformulating an over-familiar plot is evident, but what is more regrettable is, although there are flashes of Vinterberg’s skilled craftsmanship throughout the film, it ultimately remains contained within the tight strictures of the genre and becomes no better or worse than the plethora of recent period dramas; solid and dependable but utterly riskless and tired, begging the question, is the period drama genre well passed its sell by date?
Mulligan is competent if not slightly confined in the role of spirited Bathsheba, which is somewhat ironic given the mettlesome characteristics of her character and Mulligan’s penchant for plucky but vulnerable heroines. She appears too self-contained by the limitations of the screenplay and finds herself with nowhere to go but join up the predictable and restrictive period drama dots. Matthias Schoenaerts has not been unduly stretched since his previous detached lead role in Alan Rickman’s recent costume drama, A Little Chaos, and again appears reluctant to navigate his character beyond specific emotional boundaries, but does inject just enough pathos into Gabriel Oak to consider him a plausible suitor for the headstrong but fragile Bathsheba. Both Michael Sheen, as the repressive-turned-obsessive Boldwood, and Tom Sturridge, as the capricious soldier Troy, more than compensate for the impediments of the two leading actors, commandeering each scene they are in and striking the perfect balance between fear and self-loathing and compulsive desire and manic obsession.
Aside from the supporting cast, the only other significant element redeeming Far From the Madding Crowd from its otherwise sluggishness is the style of the film. As is customary with BBC period dramas, the film is a beautiful spectacle to behold. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen has masterfully created a dazzling work of art with a kaleidoscopic vision of spellbinding and hypnotic landscapes captured through a frisky and fluid cinematic lens. The production design gleams, fusing sophisticated, gentrified wealth with agricultural peasantry and penury, aesthetically rooting the audience in late 19th century England, undoubtedly spectacular but not imposing enough to salvage the film from its overall narrative shortcomings.
Far From the Madding Crowd will undoubtedly appeal to period drama devotees who demand film adaptations remain faithful to its classic source material. All required narrative archetypes and characteristics of the genre remain firmly in tact; spirited heroine, brooding hero, charming villain, bumbling paramour, resplendent setting and costumes, entangled plot and linear narrative that overcomes conflict and order restored. It does remain difficult, however, to reconcile this adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd with a director who championed for a more aseptic form of filmmaking twenty years ago and if Vinterberg himself cannot inject some anomalous quirk into the jaded period drama, then perhaps it is time the genre itself took a long break in a nice quiet, rural place.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Far From the Madding Crowd is released 1st May 2015