Stale and Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd

04/27/2015 9:00 AM |
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Far from the Madding Crowd
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Opens May 1

Thomas Vinterberg’s sun-dappled, superficial adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s beloved novel certainly wins the award for briskness. Hardy’s 480-pages (in Penguin paperback) are condensed into two spry hours (John Schlesinger’s 1967 feature starring an in-their-prime Julie Christie and Terence Stamp ran to nearly three), though the quickened pace often comes at the expense of emotional coherence.

Carey Mulligan is quite good as Hardy’s heroine Bathsheba Everdene, a headstrong woman living in Victorian England who juggles the affections of three men after she is willed a family farm. Beleaguered shepherd Gabriel Oak (Mattias Schoenaerts, a sadly dull specimen of rugged manhood) is her soulmate, though misfortune has left him on a lower social station, and marriage (which our leading lady is semi-appalled by anyway) is especially out of the question after he goes to work as Everdene’s caretaker. That leaves wealthy milquetoast William Boldwood (Michael Sheen, having fun as usual), who mainly exists as a toyed-affections target, and Sergeant Troy (pretty-faced Tom Sturridge), a handsome young soldier who courts Everdene despite being in love with the hardship-prone Fanny Robin (Juno Temple, doing a corseted variation of her manic-pixie-dream-girl routine).

Each twist of this tragicomic love story feels rushed-through, as if we’re watching a season-long soap opera that’s been inelegantly condensed. As a result, the film lacks any impassioned spark, something Vinterberg tries to make up for with plenty of gauzy pillow shots of grassy English landscapes. More often though, he sticks disagreeably close to his actors, as if trying to recapture some of the visceral charge of his Dogme 95 family melodrama The Celebration (1998).

There are a few memorable images, like the one in which Oak’s flock of sheep is herded off a seaside cliff by a mad dog. But only one scene feels properly breathless—when Troy’s infatuated redcoat woos Everdene by swinging his sharp-edged sword around her body so as to prove his trustworthiness. The threat of blood being let makes the viewer’s blood pump. Beyond that, though, this is little more than handsomely mounted Cliffs Notes cinema.