I will just say up front that Carey Mulligan is a gift to the silver screen. She commands each scene that she’s in as Bathsheba Everdene with such presence, you don’t want to look away from her. No close up is wasted. She can convey internal struggles, emotions, and heartbreak with a simple expression or a twitch of her lips. That kind of subtlety abounds in Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s famous novel, Far From The Madding Crowd.
Not to be outdone, Mulligan is teamed up with not one, but three different leading men who all compete for her affections. Only one is her true match, but as in all great romances, it takes Bathsheba a while to figure it out. The film wastes no time in setting us up to speed on the world we’re in and the characters we’re going to be rooting for. The title sequence acts as a great lead-in to the tone of the film with a wonderful score from Craig Armstrong (who previously scored Gatsby, which also starred Mulligan) and we see a montage of Bathsheba losing her scarf in the trees as she’s riding her horse. It’s Matthias Schoenaerts’s Gabriel Oak who spots her and the scarf and quickly strikes up a quiet, peaceful friendship with Bathsheba, returning the scarf and soon after bringing her a lamb and proposing.
Of course, Bathsheba says no outright, and then justifies herself carefully that they don’t know each other enough to even think of marriage. She would need a man who can tame her, and Gabriel certainly doesn’t seem up to the task. We spend the rest of this delightful film watching him do just that through his interactions with Bathsheba. Every conversation is built upon tension. A glance. The way the actors are standing. The distance between them. I was enthralled. It has been so long since I’ve experienced a romance like this at the movies, one that took its time and enjoyed every twist. To be up front, this film is very subtle in its drama. The stakes are high in the way that most period pieces have high stakes – the heroine is faced with a choice on who to spend the rest of her life with (because back then, you chose once and then that was it). If she chooses wrong, she faces a life of misery under the oppression of an uncaring man.
Enter two suitors: Michael Sheen as William Boldwood, a middle-aged and very wealthy man who was jilted by his old lover, and then Tom Sturridge as the bold Sergeant Francis Troy. Both men are obviously not suitable for Bathsheba, but she is wooed by each of them in their own way, forced to contemplate what she should do for her future. Gabriel advises her as best he can, but he also admits honestly that he is biased as he does not want to think of her with anyone but him.
That is where the summary will end for me because the rest of the movie had great twists and turns that I did not expect. The actors are fantastic and I truly believed that I was looking through a window into a time long past. The cinematography and color pallet were a treat as well with everything looking earthy and cold, and the fires were warm havens in the night. Farm work is shown as hard work, and Bathsheba is determined to make her uncle’s farm, which she’s inherited, into a thriving place of prosperity once more. She is a career woman in a time where that was frowned upon. She is determined, and it was great to see another strong female character with depth – all due to the screenwriting and the performance by Mulligan.
If you are a fan of period pieces, you owe it to yourself to experience this film. Just when I thought that bombastic sequels were all there was to see at the cinema this summer, Madding Crowd came along and swept me off my feet. If this film doesn’t get nominated for a handful of Oscars come awards season, I will be very disappointed.