True confessions. I first read Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, in which the willful Bathsheba Everdene is courted by three suitors and chooses wrongly and then right, when I was in tenth grade — Mrs. Blumberg’s English class, Salud! — and smitten, persistently and unsuccessfully, with a close friend in the class. I was not the only one; another friend had a crush on her as well. But she had recently starting dating yet another, slicker character — a junior, part of a cooler crowd, and for a time the embodiment of everything I hated about this cruel, unjust world.
As I said, we were reading Hardy, and it didn’t escape my attention (though I was grateful when another friend, female and sensitive to my plight, pointed it out) that there were certain parallels between his love quadrangle and my own situation. The object of my affection was (of course) Bathsheba; her beau of the moment was the rakish Sergeant Troy, who takes her heart and hand unworthily; my male friend was the stolid, hapless Boldwood, whose unrequited love for Bathsheba drives him to extremes. And I was — well, who else could I be but Gabriel Oak, as solid and deep-rooted as his name, who loves Bathsheba first, serves her faithfully for years, and in the end (spoiler, if your English teacher didn’t assign it) wins her as his own.
Reader, I didn’t marry her. But the book that I read my own high-school melodrama into still has a place in my heart, and so I’m not speaking as an entirely unbiased viewer when I say that the new adaptation, with Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba, casts a potent two-hour spell.
At that running time, this Far from the Madding Crowd is an hour shorter than the teeming late-’60s version with Julie Christie and Alan Bates, and there will be fans of both the novel and that adaptation who find this one too swift and streamlined, too much of a CliffsNotes version, a series of suddenly bursting crises with no respite between them. And the brevity does create some problems: Since Hardy’s plot depends so much on coincidences, missed connections, and sudden reversals of fortune, piling them all so close together throws the story’s sheer unlikeliness into rather sharp relief.
But this is cinema, where a perfect set piece is worth a lot more than a granular realism, and the new version — scripted by David Nicholls, directed by Thomas Vinterberg — does its set pieces, its fires and storms and shootings, very well indeed. The first one is the reversal of fortune with which the story opens: Gabriel, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, is a rising sheep farmer when he first proposes to the young Bathsheba, but she has barely turned him down when he loses his flock off a cliff — a moonlit nightmare shot from above, the shepherd racing desperately uphill, too late.
With that, he’s reduced to a hireling, while she suddenly comes into a lucky inheritance — her late uncle’s house and farm, deep in Hardy’s Wessex, the fictionalized southwest England, where the rhythms of the land still hold the dark satanic mills at bay. By chance (those coincidences!), the itinerant Oak finds his way to her again, lending a hand in a granary fire and then taking charge of first her sheep and then the farm entire. Meanwhile Boldwood (Michael Sheen), her wealthy-landowner neighbor, courts her elaborately and unsuccessfully; then the dashing redcoated Troy (Tom Sturridge) swoops in, seducing her with his bladework (no euphemism intended) and making her his wife.
Their union is obviously foredoomed, but perhaps even more so in the movie than in the book, because Sturridge is the cast’s weak link — pallid and mush-mouthed, embodying his character’s weaknesses well enough but without the sexual charge that explains Bathsheba’s swoon. Mulligan, taking on yet another literary icon after her role as Daisy in Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby, is much better: She gives us a proto-feminist Bathsheba, doughty and independent until the fall into Troy and aged by self-loathing afterward. She’s well matched with Schoenaerts, who is slow-burning and somehow beautifully large; only his face is slightly wrong, too essentially Belgian (the actor’s nationality) for a role that’s supposed to be organically English.
The best is Sheen, though: His Boldwood is a figure of tremendous pathos, the most Shakespearean of the story’s parts — something I didn’t realize as a teenager, when I obnoxiously saw him (and even more obnoxiously cast my friend) as just another needless obstacle to True Love. But he’s not the obstacle, he’s the example, because his love is so true it triumphs over sanity itself. And Sheen plays him, pitch-perfectly, as a man selling both his dignity and his self-awareness piece by piece, clinging to the hope that before he’s sold everything he’ll get his heart’s desire in return.
The movie’s landscape is visually but not culturally rich; the film does not even try to go as deep into rural folkways as the novel. But it gives us a few true Wessex moments, among them a lamplit dinner with the farmhands and their mistress, where Boldwood shows up as an uninvited guest and then is coaxed (quite willingly) by the crowd of yeomanry into singing an old ballad. Bathsheba, more reluctantly, joins him, and they harmonize briefly. For a moment, more fleeting even than a high-school English class, he has exactly what he wants. And that’s all he ever gets.