Far from the Madding Crowd
I don’t tend to be a big fan of period pieces. Most of them tend to feel more like exercises in costume and set design than anything else. Among the many forgettable romances we might occasionally get a story that projects a somewhat modern social consciousness backwards a few centuries, as if to assuage us of some cultural guilt: “at least we aren’t that bad anymore!”
But then comes something like Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Yes, it’s a romance, but with a much more satisfying resonance than a series of parlor intrigues. Yes, it’s a social-consciousness film, but the ideas all stem from Hardy’s novel itself, and it’s a more solidly feminist story than most movies set in the present-day with a “strong female lead”.
Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is a strong-willed young woman who inherits her uncle’s farm in the south of England. She is determined to rebuild it into the finest farm in the area, as it once had been, and she wants to do it herself, not by handing the managerial control off to a man.
Though she maintains her decision-making powers, Bathsheba hires a man to head up much of the day-to-day work. Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) was a shepherd and neighbor of Bathsheba’s before her fortunes rose and his fell. He once had asked her to marry him, but she turned him down, claiming that he could never tame her.
But Gabriel is only the first man to propose marriage to Bathsheba. A silly prank, cooked up with her maid, Liddy (Jessica Barden), catches the romantic interest of William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), whose neighboring farm could be a huge expansion of her own. And while she ponders whether or not it would be worth losing her independence she meets the dashing army officer Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), who ignites her passions like never before.
It is, admittedly, a sort of a Goldilocks story. Frank is bold and passionate, but he’s already gotten one girl in trouble (Juno Temple), and he cares more for his own pleasures than for any sort of stability. William is certainly stable, but emotionally unavailable and stifling. It’s Gabriel who offers the balance of both: he has real skill at farming despite his run-in with bad luck early on, and he offers generously of himself.
Even more unusual for any sort of romance movie, Gabriel offers his services out of true friendship, even after Bathsheba’s rejection. He doesn’t plot or scheme to win her back. He admires her, and respects her, and accepts her decision humbly. The clinching proof that he is, in fact, a nice guy is that he never tries to make the case that he is one, or that he deserves anything because of it. It’s almost unprecedented to see male and female leads working towards this sort of honest and equal partnership, and in watching Vinterberg’s film we can’t help but hope that they’ll make it.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.