“Far From the Madding Crowd” is sensitive Hardy adaptation
“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language chiefly made by men to express theirs.”
So declares the bold and independent Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) in Thomas Vinterberg’s film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd.”
And Bathsheba isn’t the only one who struggles to articulate her emotions. All of the characters in “Madding Crowd” fail to communicate what they desire—or fail to even know themselves what they desire.
Luckily for the viewer, however, Vinterberg does not struggle to articulate his vision of Hardy’s literary masterpiece. “Madding Crowd” is a beautifully realized film with breathtaking visuals, a subtle but impressive score, and intuitive, honest acting.
The film, however, is a bit gentler than the novel. As one of Hardy’s relatively early works, “Far from the Madding Crowd” is less bleak than his later work—such as “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure”—but the novel is still rough around the edges. Vinterburg softens the story a bit, perhaps in order to appeal to a wider audience and keep the runtime under two hours, but crucial moments in the story feel somewhat watered down.
Nevertheless, Vinterberg remains true to the spirit of Hardy’s work. In the first chapter of the novel, Hardy writes, “Love is a possible strength in an actual weakness,” a sentiment that Vinterberg’s film definitely conveys. It seems that every romantic attraction in “Madding Crowd” is pursued with the expectation that marriage—the joining of two flawed individuals—will somehow mend the problems of those individuals. In reality, however, marriage complicates more than it clarifies, and both Vinterberg’s film and Hardy’s novel impart the necessity of honest communication by revealing the tragic aftermath of dishonesty.
Set in the English countryside in 1870, “Madding Crowd” begins by establishing Bathsheba’s independent spirit and introducing her three romantic suitors. First, there is Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a simple and hardworking sheep farmer who pledges to support and honor Bathsheba. Next is William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a well-established landowner who offers her comfort and protection. And finally there is Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a young and handsome soldier who promises an exciting life full of passion.
After her uncle’s death, Bathsheba inherits his farm, which has fallen into disrepair. She is determined to restore it to greatness, but not by marrying or hiring a man to take charge of the property. Bathsheba gathers the farmhands and declares, “From now on, you have a mistress, not a master. It is my intention to astonish you all.”
And astonish Bathsheba certainly does. She begins her first day as a farmer by firing her uncle’s bailiff, the man who is largely responsible for the farm’s ruin. The bailiff angrily protests that she is just a woman who knows nothing about his business, a man’s business. After the disgruntled bailiff finally leaves, she carries on her speech to the other farmhands, her voice steady and posture defiant, but with the slightest glimmer of unshed tears in her eyes.
This is but a taste of the depth that Mulligan brings to the character of Bathsheba. Her performance is layered and sensitive, as it should be, for Bathsheba is a woman fighting to make her way in a man’s world. Mulligan’s incredible performance is best matched by Sheen’s masterful portrayal of Boldwood, but Schoenaerts and Sturridge also have commendable turns as her other suitors.
After Bathsheba receives one of her first marriage proposals, she smiles a bit when her suitor mentions that he could provide for her, from money and shelter to dresses and pianos. Irritated, her suitor asks if he is amusing her, and she replies, “It’s only I have a piano. And I have my own farm. And I have no need for a husband.”
Another suitor declares that Bathsheba is a beautiful. When she does not reply, he continues, “You must know. There must be some man who calls you beautiful.” Bathsheba remains silent. Mulligan’s sensitive portrayal of Bathsheba reveals how uncomfortable she is with men’s objectification of her and the idea that a woman needs a man’s opinion to know she’s beautiful.
While a wedding often represents a successful conclusion to a story—especially in theatrical convention or a Jane Austen novel—“Madding Crowd” takes as much time exploring courtship as it spends revealing its aftermath. In “Madding Crowd,” Bathsheba’s wedding is not the end of the story. Rather, Vinterberg’s film, like Hardy’s novel, explores what happens after the wedding bells and what marriage looks like behind closed doors. The viewer, then, is allowed to see what happens after “happily ever after”—and it is usually not so happy.
Vinterberg’s “Madding Crowd” is well worth a watch for those who have read Hardy’s novel and those who have not, for it is a story made timeless by Bathsheba’s resilience and independence.