Before I get into the actual review, I have to admit how insanely rare it is for me to go into a theater and see a movie these days. When I have the option of waiting until DVD / cable / Netflix vs. going to a theater, I’ll usually wait. The movie screen experience gives me headaches, and I’m seriously annoyed by other people harshing my mellow with their incessant chatter. But I love Thomas Hardy like crazy and so does my husband, and we had an afternoon free and made an old-fashioned date of it. Yes, I got a bit of a headache, and yes, stupid people did talk through the movie, but my sweetie and I held hands and had a good time none the less!
Far From the Madding Crowd is, of course, based on Thomas Hardy’s novel published in 1874, and a title in the first few minutes of the film names the setting as “1870 Dorset, England.” I guess they needed to put that date in front of the film because the first thing we see is a woman (Carey Mulligan, playing the main character, Bathsheba Everdene) riding into the scene wearing a leather jacket and leather pants like some kind of steampunk chick. Yes, LEATHER and PANTS. Um, maybe it’s not 100% inconceivable for the period, but it’s pretty damn unlikely. I get it, the filmmakers want to show that Bathsheba is independent, she’s a rebel, she’s not a typical woman of her time. Except Hardy’s prose is far more subtle than that. And therein lies my real issue with this movie…
It’s kind of a dumbed-down version of Thomas Hardy’s prose, making his complicated social critique into an easy romance for the masses. Fine, whatever, do what you need to do to make a buck, I guess. But it still makes me sad. I love how Bathsheba is supposed to be truly torn between three equally compelling options: her heart (Gabriel Oak, who accepts her as an equal and loves her as she is), her head (William Boldwood, who is the respectable, socially acceptable choice), and her sexual desire (Sergeant Troy, who’s stokes her physical passion). In the book and somewhat in the 1967 film version, Bathsheba struggles more between the three men and trying to integrate her various needs while also living within the confines of rural Victorian society. But Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba floats between the three men with only a smidge of dissatisfaction, and aside from one minor disagreement about the price of grain, nobody seems to care that she’s a woman running a farm by herself.
I was wary about Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene, having only seen her before as the wet-wallpaper version of Daisy in The Great Gatsby (2013). And I still can’t tell if it’s the actress or the filmmaking — Sometimes, as with the riding scenes, this movie wants to make Bathsheba look strong and full of life. Other times, as in closeup conversations, she comes off as merely timid instead of troubled by her choices or contemplative about what to do.
That said, the men are mostly well cast. I especially loved Michael Sheen as Boldwood, he had such pathos and was terribly sympathetic. Even though I knew how it would end, I kind of wanted her to pick him. Sheen isn’t a typical historical heartthrob, but he has huge acting cred, especially in London theater. He’s done a number of big movies as well, and I most remember him as a brilliant David Frost in the stunning Frost / Nixon (2008).
Some of the best scenes in this movie were between Boldwood and Gabriel Oak, played by Matthias Schoenaerts. Not only are these two men vying for Bathsheba in different ways, but they’re the most interesting characters in the film. Belgian actor Schoenaerts as Gabriel does both the strong silent thing and his dialog does a lot to flesh out the story. He hasn’t been in a ton of historical costume movies, but he’s currently in A Little Chaos with Alan Rickman and Kate Winslet.
The weakest part of the love quadrangle is Sergeant Troy, played by Tom Sturridge. Troy really needs to ooze sex appeal and be a real hot head. He’s supposed to be someone who can literally sweep Bathsheba off her feat and “tame” her. Sturridge is … pretty. He’s cute. Almost sweet, and then he turns into a jerk at the very end. Terence Stamp, who played Troy in the 1967 film, gave this role the sex and edge it needed. Poor Sturridge just doesn’t have the right act. Also, big chunks of Troy’s story are left out, including crucial scenes with Fanny Robbin (and with Boldwood, for that matter), and this reduces much of the dramatic tension around his role and motivations. That’s a bad move on the filmmaker’s part.
Far From the Madding Crowd Costumes
Luckily, we don’t see Bathsheba in pants again, and overall the costumes in Far From the Madding Crowd are quite nice. The film’s costume designer is Janet Patterson, who also designed for The Piano (1993), The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Oscar and Lucinda (1997), and Bright Star (2009), all of which she was nominated for the Best Costume Oscar. About Far From the Madding Crowd‘s costumes, Patterson says: “[The film’s director] Vinterberg wanted to avoid the crinolines and bustles associated with Victoriana, so he moved the story’s action to 1880, when fashion suddenly turned to a sleeker, more modern silhouette — one more befitting a woman who rides, climbs ladders, and jumps into the sheep dip.” Except the movie explicitly stated it’s set in 1870, not 1880. Get your stories straight, people.
So according to design, Bathsheba wears a variety of natural-form Victorian gowns in prints and plaids that feel appropriate to the rural setting. She has some lovely hats for going to town or church. There’s one ball scene with fancy gowns. Her most elaborate costumes are mostly ones that get the least screen time — a recent display at the Dorset County Museum in the U.K. has several beautiful gowns from the film that are seen very briefly. There’s the embroidered silk gown she wears upon returning with Troy to the farm after their wedding; the dark buttoned coat worn when Bathsheba runs away to marry Troy; and the spotted gown she wears at the wedding party at the farm (which is seen in the film for a longer scene).
Each of the three suitors has his own style: Boldwood wears serious, proper dark suits; Oak wears rough peasant garb; and Troy wears either his military uniform or a rather dandy-ish striped suit (there’s also one scene where Troy is in his striped suit AND Bathsheba is in a tailored striped suit, and whoa, it’s gorgeous eye-candy! sorry, couldn’t find screencaps though). The farm workers are all in simple, rather generic, homespun clothes.
I wasn’t impressed by the hairstyling. Bathsheba almost always has her hair in essentially a long braid down her back, which doesn’t seem right for an adult woman of the period. She even unbraids her hair for her ‘first date’ with Troy — obvious symbolism there. The only times her hair is fully worn up in a historical style is when she goes to town or church or at the ball.
Overall, Far From the Madding Crowd is not bad, but it’s not the best Thomas Hardy film adaption I’ve seen. Could have waited till it was on cable or streaming (though it was nice to go out with my honey!).