Classic novels understandably invite screen adaptation, and Thomas Hardy’s have proven no exception. Thomas Vinterberg’s is the fourth version of “Far from the Madding Crowd,” Hardy’s 1874 tale of Bathsheba Everdine, an independent-minded young woman determined to make a go of the Wessex farm she inherits from her uncle while attracting the attention of three suitors—Gabriel Oak, the shepherd who proposed to her unsuccessfully even before she became a person of property; William Boldwood, the older neighbor who’s recently been jilted; and Frank Troy, a dashing army officer with a penchant for gambling and a pregnant former girlfriend, Fanny Robin.
In the most famous previous adaptation, John Schlesinger’s 1967 MGM film, Julie Christie played Bathsheba, Alan Bates Oak, Peter Finch Boldwood and Terence Stamp Troy. It was an elegant, slow-moving, even somewhat ponderous retelling that Pauline Kael called a “misconceived…botch.” At nearly two hours Vinterberg’s version, as edited by Claire Simpson, certainly doesn’t rush, but it’s considerably shorter than Schlesinger’s 171-minute film (or a 216-minute 1998 Granada Television production shown here on PBS). Still it’s reasonably faithful to the book, though as refashioned for the screen by David Nicholls it necessarily cuts and abbreviates for dramatic effect, as well as reasons of time.
It’s also very handsomely made, made in gorgeous locales that receive painterly attention from cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen and with predictably thorough attention to period detail from production designer Kave Quinn and costumer Janet Patterson. Some of the individual widescreen images look like they might properly be framed.
The casting, too, is mostly very fine. It might be argued that Carey Mulligan plays Bathsheba in rather too modern a vein—the word “spunky” comes to mind, though Hardy would never have countenanced it. Yet she’s so vibrant as to dispel criticism. Michael Schoenaerts is an appropriately sturdy Oak, positively oozing devotion and love, and Michael Sheen captures Boldwood’s desperation and false hope with genuine poignancy. Tom Sturridge certainly looks the part of Troy, splendid in his red coat, but despite his demonstration of a swordsman’s skill (in a scene that’s one of Hardy’s most memorable), it’s difficult to credit how quickly and completely Bathsheba melts to his advances. As for Juno Temple’s Fanny Robin, the part has been so truncated in Nicholls’ streamlining that she’s able to make only a fleeting impression, a pity as the character proves so essential to the dramatic turns in the narrative’s last act. Lesser roles are all skillfully filled by folk who certainly look their parts.
Of course, there’s a great deal going on beneath the surface of Hardy’s novel—concerns with fate and the realities of country life—that any cinematic treatment would find it difficult to handle with much depth, and to be honest Vinterberg’s doesn’t much try. It’s content with hitting the high points of the plot as a solid Masterpiece Theatre presentation might do, in particular emphasizing the vaguely modern them of a feisty woman seeking to make her way in the world without submitting to male domination, in the end not altogether successfully.
But though this “Madding Crowd” is a fairly superficial rendering of Hardy, which doesn’t exhibit the same degree of wrestling with the source material that Polanski showed in “Tess” and Michael Winterbottom has repeatedly demonstrated, not only in his underrated “Jude” but in his more innovative takes on “The Claim” (based on “The Mayor of Casterbridge”) and “Trishna” (based on “Tess”), it nonetheless works on that more mundane level. Devotees of the novel will be disappointed that Vinterberg has chosen to opt for such a fairly conventional condensation, but better that than the extravagantly misguided approach that Joe Wright, for example, imposed on his recent version of “Anna Karenina.” Vinterberg at least treats Hardy’s work with respect, if not a lot of imagination.