Disclaimer: I’ve never read anything by Thomas Hardy, although I’ve got Tess of the d’Ubervilles and Jude the Obscure somewhere on my reading list. The film version of Far From the Madding Crowd is my first taste of his work and I have to say that I’m greatly disappointed. The plot reads like a cheap, wish-fulfilling romance: an attractive, plucky young woman (Carey Mulligan) inherits a farm from her rich uncle and suddenly receives marriages proposals from just about every man she meets. After making plenty of foolish mistakes and errors in judgement in life and love, including marrying a foppish, gambling-addicted soldier (Tom Sturridge), she winds up with the hunky, steadfast sheep farmer (Matthias Schoenaerts) who stood by her through it all.
What’s almost as bad as the clunky plot is that Madding Crowd nearly could have been sustained as a pretty period drama, yet suffers from camera work and editing that falls short of polished and natural. Sometimes, the film loses steam by dwelling too long in a scene or adding tension where none is needed. There are still plenty of pretty shots—close-ups bathed in glowing orange sunlight or a baroque staging of candle-lit faces floating in darkness—but it’s not quite enough to save this staid film.
Mulligan and Schoenaerts, as well as Michael Sheen playing one of the suitors, do their best in their simple roles. However, Mulligan seems to me too subtle and intelligent to play the prideful, impetuous, and foolish protagonist Bathsheba Everdene, who really is more of a Lydia Bennet than an Elizabeth. The up-and-coming Schoenaerts deserves so much more than a role where he is merely the love interest, period. The film barely offers much else to his farmhand character other than some moments of anguish after he loses all his sheep and briefly hinting at some hidden past when he mysteriously turns down a job offer to become a soldier. Unfortunately, beyond those short scenes near the beginning of the film, his character is only defined by his patient devotion to Bathsheba. Luckily, Sheen, as the rather desperate, lovestruck, rich, older neighbour, manages to convey the depth of his unrequited love for the heroine and his history of rejection in an affecting way and he gets the funniest line in the movie while proposing for the second time.
Perhaps adding more themes to the story could’ve helped the film. Beyond the romances, Bathsheba proves herself to be a capable farm owner and a fiercely independent woman, thus a person of interest in the heavily patriarchal society of 1800s Britain. If the filmmakers had expounded on her unique position in society, Bathsheba might be a more interesting character. A B-plot might have helped too, to break up the pacing of the story. Alas, I dearly hope the original book is more complex and intriguing than the film.
Rating: 2 out of 5 cliff-jumping sheep