'Madding Crowd's' Latest Film Iteration Gets Inside The Novel
At first glance, Thomas Vinterberg is not an obvious choice to direct a film adaptation of a major 19th century English novel. It’s not that he’s Danish; it’s that his best work by far is 1998's The Celebration, one of the essential works of the short-lived but intense neo-realist Dogme ’95 movement.
The Dogme certificate required filming only with hand-held camera on actual 35mm film, and forbade external music and any artificial lighting. The camera in the beautifully polished Far From the Madding Crowd, which also has external music, is rock steady. Vinterberg’s lighting, with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, is gorgeous and elegant, and is surely not done only with natural light, although Vinterberg did shoot real film.
Far From the Madding Crowd takes on the deliberate pace and events of Thomas Hardy’s book, but it also speaks fundamentally to our own time. At the center stands Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a young woman of no social standing who unexpectedly inherits a significant estate. Even before that, she rejects a marriage proposal from the hunky shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). Once she has the land, Bathsheba, draws the attentions of the decent, rich, middle-aged neighbor Mr. Boldwood (Michael Sheen). She rejects his offer also.
Bathsheba’s driving idea is that a woman in 1870 can live an independent life, not bound by her society’s restrictions on women. You see this independence literally from the giddyup, as Bathesheba sitting astride her horse, not side-saddle, gallops across the fields and through the forest.
She’s no radical or social reformer. She’s a farmer, 200 miles from London, who simply lives on her own terms. She’s a capable steward of her lands, and she’s not shy about anything.
On her first day as a landowner, she fires the corrupt and inept bailiff. Later, she jumps right in to help with the sheep dipping; she pulls tarps over the haystacks. She only makes one mistake, although it’s a big one. As tough as she is, Bathsheba Everdene knows nothing of love or sex, so she falls for a soldier decked out in his bright scarlet coat – the guy with the slimiest and cheapest line in the county.
Filmmakers have been plundering the British novel for over a hundred years. Most of the films are respectful, earnest, literary – yet as film many of them are often dull illustrations of famous books. This version of Far From the Madding Crowd gets inside the book. The big shots of pastures and woods go beyond pretty. They make the natural world the prime force in the movie, because the story is about human beings interacting with that capricious natural world. Gabriel Oak has a sheep dog that never quite gets the hang of things and drives Oak’s herd over a cliff. Storms threaten the hay; fire breaks out in the barn; sheep get sick. But those rolling hills and fields never go away, and they never lose their dimension.
The expanses of green give context to the life human beings try to establish. Nineteenth century rural English society may not be a great way for people to organize their lives, but here you can see that it’s at least coherent. It gets the work done; it creates food and shelter for most of the people who live on the land. It creates wealth for a few of them. It’s also rigid and sometimes pointless.
In Jane Austen’s novels and the film adaptations, women have to marry to maintain themselves in life. But here Bathsheba tells dogged Mr. Boldwood that she has no need for a husband. She likes him; she appreciates his help, but she doesn’t need a husband – that part of the social structure has petrified for her. She needs Gabriel Oak for his many skills around the farm and also for his steady good sense and intelligence. Finally she may want him also – but that’s another kind of need.