WRITTEN REVIEW – Far From The Madding Crowd (2015)

Far From The Madding Crowd
Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg
Written by: David Nicholls
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge & Juno Temple
Music: Craig Armstrong
Certificate: 12A
Release Date: May 1st 2015

It seems that for millennials, the name Thomas Hardy prompts one of two responses. 1) Who is Thomas Hardy? or 2) I hate Thomas Hardy because I was forced to read every single thing he wrote at school.

To everyone else, Thomas Hardy is considered one of the most radical and influential writers of the Victorian era. Being a part of the literary realist movement in the 19th century, Thomas Hardy was often very critical of Victorian culture and the ever-growing industrial complex that was beginning to take off in England throughout his lifetime. His stance against Victorian values and emphasis on the quaint, rural, lower-middle class in his storytelling (as well as his poetry works) are often most well recognised in his breakout novel; 1874’s “Far From The Madding Crowd”.

Having been adapted for the big screen screen numerous times – in 1915 as a silent film directed by Laurence Trimble, in 1967 by John Schlesinger and even a 2010 spiritual adaptation ‘Tamara Drewe‘ which was based off the comic-strip series directed by Stephen Frears – Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg now throws his hat into the ring with his adaptation of the novel by BBC Films, who certainly know how to make a period romance movie. With torn-lovers having a 21st century renaissance thanks to young-adult fiction adaptations, ‘Far From The Madding Crowd‘ should fit into the current movie-going landscape. But does this adaptation hold up, or do none of the four lovers in this story find their happily ever after?
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Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan) is an independent farm-owner in Victorian England. Despite societal expectations for her to marry, Bathsheba considers herself too independent to be tied down so she denies the proposal of local sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Schoenaerts). When circumstances arise that cause Bathsheba to become the owner of a whole estate while Gabriel loses everything, Gabriel gets a job on Bathsheba’s newly acquired farm. With this new status, Bathsheba attracts two further potential suitors; William Boldwood (Sheen), a nervous, mild-mannered bachelor and Frank Troy (Sturridge), a reckless and egotistical Sergeant.

 Just to clarify, I have not read the Thomas Hardy book and this is the first adaptation of it that I have seen. This 2015 film is my introduction to the story and it’s a story that doesn’t really have much conflict or anything in the way of high stakes. Obviously, that’s not a criticism, it just means that the movie has to have something in its place such as very personal stakes for its main characters whom we have to care about. The problem with ‘Far From The Madding Crowd‘ (at least, with THIS adaptation since I can’t speak for the source material or previous films) is that it doesn’t really do that, particularly in its portrayal of Bathsheba.
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Don’t get me wrong. I understand that Bathsheba Everdene is considered a feminist icon (as well as being the inspiration for the name of Katniss Everdeen from ‘The Hunger Games‘) and there’s a lot to admire in her as a character in the fact that she isn’t conforming to societal standards and is fiercely independent. However, her status is one of the few things that are admirable about her and she doesn’t earn much of her status in the first place. The large estate that she owns for most of the movie was given to her by inheritance and we don’t actually see her do much in the realm of business and management. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say that the farm practically ran itself, which kinda undermines her independent nature.

But that’s a minor quibble when compared to her personality and it demonstrates why Carey Mulligan, as brilliant a female actor as she is, might be miscast for this role. Carey Mulligan plays the role of a woman who is equally stern and soft, but her actions as dictated by the script paint her as a self-entitled individual. One of the first thing she does in the movie is send a joke-Valentines Day card to William Boldwood who then proposes to her, only to discover that he was the butt of a joke. Michael Sheen, who is great as William, plays it so sincerely that you can’t help but feel heartbroken for the guy. And instead of learning her lesson, Bathsheba KEEPS LEADING HIM ON.
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Now, don’t get me wrong, I actually grew up so I know that “the friendzone” is not a real thing. It’s the Santa Clause or the Tooth Fairy of the social world. However, ‘Far From The Madding Crowd‘ tries to portray it on screen, which is probably why the above example falls so flat in terms of endearing audience sympathy with the main character.

There’s not much reason for these three characters to be attracted to Bathsheba other than her appearance (though, for some, that might be enough with is fair enough for old-fashion storytelling, I guess) because she doesn’t really do anything to earn the affection of the men. This type of narrative short-hand might be necessary when adapting a 464 page book (written during a time when authors were paid per-page, which is why so many books from that era are STAGGERINGLY over-written) but when the love story is the entirety of the conflict, you’ve got to believe in it and I just didn’t believe it in ‘Far From The Madding Crowd‘.

Part of that could be down to irrational contrivances within the story, apart from the “why have these characters fallen for each other?” one. This is mainly apparent during the Frank Troy side-story for the first half. Having not been familiar with the source material, I had no idea why this character and his storyline, which didn’t connect to Bathsheba’s story at all, was being focused on. And when the storylines do finally connect, it comes out of nowhere as Frank Troy literally appears out of nowhere (seriously, why was he there when Bathsheba stumbles across him?) and the reason for him leaving his previous partner don’t make much sense.

Minor spoiler for the movie (it’s in the first third, so hopefully you’ll forgive me) but Frank Troy is due to get married and his fiancée turns up at the wrong church on the day of the ceremony, which feels ridiculously contrived as it is. But then the two don’t even attempt to get into communication with each other to find out what happened and Frank Troy just goes onto the next woman he sees…despite his motivations towards the end of movie demonstrating that’s the exact OPPOSITE of what he would naturally do.

If this movie is faithful to the source material, then how did the novel become essential reading in schools? To teach them how not to write story-structure, or something?
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It also doesn’t help that Bathsheba’s character devolves as the movie goes along from being an independent woman to someone who becomes dependent entirely on the men in her life, without any sort of tangible transition or justification for it. While I was glad to see her find hardship because some of the insensitive things she did over the course of the movie and the way she treated her friends, it felt like that wasn’t how the movie wanted me to feel which made the tone and the entire point of the movie feel completely up in the air and poorly thought out. Or worse, not even thought out at all.

The romance elements are clichéd as the narrative feels like it’s a slave to genre tropes. It’s a rather empty story as there’s not much going on other then the character relationships, but every so often ‘Far From The Madding Crowd‘ does throw in some curve-balls to change the game…before making the twists inconsequential and then it’s business as usual. Seriously, the movie spends 119 minutes threatening to be interesting but it never is and that makes it a frustrating watch. Coming away from the movie I’m not even sure as to what it’s trying to say about society, feminism or even romance. For a movie that’s been well received by critics (85% on RottenTomatoes at time of writing), I just don’t see what’s in this story or in the majority of these characters that warrants that kind of praise.
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The performances are decent, with Carey Mulligan being the stand-out, of course. She delivers the lines well and the emotions are there and she’s really trying, but like I said earlier the character just doesn’t feel consistent which makes Mulligan’s performance feel like a wasted effort. Matthias Schoenaerts is okay, but unlike his romantic turn in ‘Suite Française a few months ago, he doesn’t share much chemistry with his leading lady. Some couples have on-screen chemistry and others don’t, but in this case it is unfortunately the latter. Tom Sturridge feels very miscast as Frank Troy as he simple does not exude the presence that the role requires him to have, ESPECIALLY when it comes to wooing Bathsheba and while Juno Temple isn’t bad in the small role she has as Troy’s former-lover, the character is one-note.

Other than Carey Mulligan, the performance stand-out is actually Michael Sheen as William Boldwood. While the character does feel underwritten, Michael Sheen is able to overcome that with an incredibly nuanced performance. It’s impossible to not root for the guy and find his demeanour and sincerity cute and he’s far more memorable and engaging than the other two suitors. But there’s not much tension with the love story anyway because before the movie even starts we know who Bathsheba is finally going to choose in the end.

Seriously, this plot-point is predictable as hell. Based on every romance story ever written in history, who is Bathsheba going to wind up with by the end of the movie? The rugged but caring farmer, the incompatible nice guy or the soldier with the strange looking moustache? Seriously, you KNOW who she’s going to end up with which makes the two-hours leading up the the resolution feel exceedingly tedious.
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If there is one thing I can whole-heartedly recommend seeing ‘Far From The Madding Crowd‘ for, it’s the production. It’s not a big-budget movie, but it does feel like a lavish production. The hair, costumes, make-up and set-dressing feel authentic for the time, in particular the colours of the costumes clashing with the gorgeously photographed landscapes. Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography is gorgeous and jaw-dropping at points, in particular the use of orange. The sunscapes are beautiful and my favourite shot of the movie comes early on with Gabriel walking along a beach at sunrise. The light from the sun bouncing off the sand creating the effect of Gabriel walking on what looks like gold-dust is a shot that’s probably worth the price of admission alone.

Speaking of gold-dust, the music felt like I was having metaphorical gold sprinkled into my ear for most of the movie (that metaphor was a stretch, I’ll admit). During the opening credits, when “Music by…Craig Armstrong” turned up, my ears knew they were in for a good time. Craig Armstrong is one of my favourite composers (having scored movies such as ‘Love Actually‘, ‘Moulin-Rouge!‘, ‘The Incredible Hulk‘, ‘In Time‘ and ‘The Great Gatsby‘) and he once again demonstrates his master of strings and memorable, but never over-bearing melodies as well as instruments and motifs tailored to each character which is seamlessly incorporated into the storytelling across the film. It’s not his best score, but it’s still damn fine work.
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But despite it’s strong production values and a smattering of decent performances, I cannot in good consciences recommend ‘Far From The Madding Crowd‘. It feels like a handsome, but muddled and unsubstantial mess (kinda like Michael Sheen’s character, but with less awkward charm and more confusion) with a contrived narrative, a predictable love-story that’s really tough to root for as well as the lack of any sort of underlying themes or coherent “point” to the whole enterprise. There’s nothing to offend viewers intellectually and there’s nothing in ‘Far From The Madding Crowd‘ that’s so egregious that audiences should avoid it at all cost, but that’s mainly because there’s so little there in general.

I give ‘Far From The Madding Crowd‘ 2 stars out of 5.

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Posted In: 2015 Reviews Current Reviews Reviews

Author: Trilbee

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Posted: 23rd May 15