Thomas Hardy's romantic Victorian novel of class, labor and the fickle finger of love, Far From the Madding Crowd earns a stately yet earthy and full-blooded film treatment from the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg.
The film makes a fine showcase for Carey Mulligan (The Great Gatsby), Mathias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), Michael Sheen and Juno Temple. And if it isn't as decorous and deft as the Jane Austen romances of an earlier literary (and cinematic) age, the longing is still there in a story that feels more lived-in, brutish and realistic.
Mulligan is Bathsheba Everdene, who, as an orphan, grew up well-cared-for but penniless. Digging potatoes on her aunt's farm, her delicate features capture the attention of neighboring Farmer Oak (Schoenaerts), a shepherd of some skill. He blurts out an abrupt proposal. The posh-accented Bathsheba isn't having it. She doesn't see herself as "being some man's property." And she's not that much of a catch, she reminds the brawny Oak — "I have an education, and nothing more."
As Oak's life goes into a manly tailspin, Bathsheba's takes a turn for the better with an inheritance. Mulligan gives her some flint when Bathsheba takes over a rundown farm and proceeds to clean house of the lazy, corrupt staff.
"I am a woman," she announces. "It is my intention to astonish you all."
That includes her fellow farm folk, the men's club who sell their goods on a local commodities exchange, which Bathsheba integrates. The smitten, chilly, painfully shy Boldwood (Michael Sheen) seems cut straight out of Austen's Pride & Prejudice. But Bathsheba isn't swept away by this brusk, rich and handsome neighbor.
A side story concerns young Fanny (Juno Temple), who falls on hard times when a mixup of churches keeps her from marrying Sgt. Troy (Tom Sturridge). The arrogant dandy Troy turns bitter and that, in turn, turns Bathsheba's head. Will she give her heart to the bad boy, with all these nobler men pursuing her?
Vinterberg, who directed the Danish Oscar contender The Hunt, does well by the tragic (Oak's ruin comes from the loss of a flock of sheep) and the drawn-out romantic longing. Neither Oak nor Boldwood are men who bend. As sturdy and steadfast as their suggestive names, they nobly pine for Bathsheba, named for King David's adulterous conquest in the Bible.
Get past this overt symbolism and this oft-filmed story (most recently, in the tarted-up and modernized Tamara Drewe) delivers rewards in classic period-piece fashion. It's a love quadrangle with pretty period costumes and muddy period farm labor.
Mulligan makes a fine feisty, ahead-of-her-time object of desire, Sheen captures a sort of dewey-eyed suffering, and Sturridge is the very picture of Imperial moustachioed haughtiness.
Best of all is the Belgian Schoenaerts, making his farmer of few words a noble ideal, a man worthy of a woman as spirited as Bathsheba, if only she will relent to seeing that.