Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd is a triumph of a novel and might provide a perfect base for an adaptation. Its tale of human perseverance, the dangers of love and commerce, and the battles of a strong willed woman are both timelessly entertaining and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, that is nearly all that can be said for Thomas Vinterberg’s new film: that it chose good source material. Aside from this saving grace however, the film is overall a failure.
The main problem is the film’s casting. This is key in such an emotional and personal tale and yet Vinterberg fails spectacularly, with all four of the major actors being miscast. Carey Mulligan takes the lead as Bathsheba Everdene, a young woman who takes over the running of her deceased uncle’s farm. The part calls for a determined and charismatic performance with a streak of vanity. Mulligan, however, plays most of these character traits as a front for her fear and naivety. Obviously an adaptation has the right to play aspects of the story in a different way than the novel, but with the focus of the film on Everdene and a new feminist angle added, Mulligan’s performance does not seem to fit the story she is in or the needs of the character. She is not a bad actor, nor does she turn in a bad performance per se; it is simply a case of her being wrong for this film.
Everdene’s three suitors fare little better. Michael Sheen offers a competent but uninspired performance as Boldwood, a character left undeveloped due to constraints on time. The traditional English shepherd, Gabriel Oak, is played by a Belgian, Matthias Schoenaerts, an actor whose performance is acceptable, but too bland to engage the audience’s sympathies. For any other character this would be fine, but as the one most associated with the English land and tradition, Schoenaerts looks out of place and unbelievable. Oak is also given more time with Everdene in order to cement their eventual marriage, which in Hardy’s novel is more a bitter-sweet meeting of two damaged souls. In this adaptation, however, it is played as a beautiful romance. But Mulligan and Schoenaerts share no onscreen chemistry, thus the casting seems to be a case of choosing a selection of beautiful actors. The exception might have been Sgt. Troy who in the novel is supposed to appear to Everdene as a dashing young soldier, awakening her sexual urges, only to be revealed to be a greedy womaniser with the requisite lecherous moustache. Yet alas, there is no chemistry between them too, and Tom Sturridge gives the only truly bad performance of the film.
With poorly cast actors, the plot and emotions of the piece fail, and the film’s visual style does not help matters. Most scenes feature an excess of editing, with shots changing far too rapidly, presenting a fragmented final image. This haste can also be seen in the length of each scene, as many impart only the vital plot information before ending, with the audience being given no time to absorb the atmosphere of the world or the true nature of the characters. While this gives the film a sense of pace, the audience never gets any real feel for the characters or their world as no time is spent establishing them.
This review may present the negative aspects of the film, but due to the engaging narrative of the original text the film is not without merit. This new version tests Hardy’s skill to the edge however, as it detracts from the original text due to its failings, while adding little worthy of note. While director Vinterberg’s earlier work has been praised by many, this film appears to be a misstep in his career, and pales in comparison to both Hardy’s novel and earlier adaptations of it.