Thursday, May 14, 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd (***1/2)

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg


The literature of the Romantic-era poet and novelist Thomas Hardy is amongst the most-read of the Victorian period. Like his predecessors, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, his work is so rich with narrative and heavy with drama that no one adaptation can really suffice. There are many ways to tell a story, but it takes a special kind of story to continue drawing intrigue with each subsequent retelling. This latest version of Far From the Madding Crowd, I must admit, is the first that I've ever seen, but showcases the novel's lush, elegant aspects; both a testament to the density of the narrative and a strong argument for the novel's cinematic capabilities. The film is directed by Thomas Vinterberg, the Danish filmmaker famous as the co-founder (with the notorious Lars von Trier) of the Earth-shattering Dogme 95 movement. I'm not sure what the man who directed The Celebration would think of directing this version of Madding Crowd. If anything, this is the complete antithesis of a Dogme film - it's storytelling manipulation in its purest form. People evolve and filmmakers are no exception. The seventeen-year evolution from The Celebration in 1998 to this year's Madding Crowd shows a strong, consistent growth from one of our most under-sung filmmakers.

The film stars Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene, the defiantly independent, blue collar protagonist of Hardy's novel. Bathsheba is dedicated to avoiding marriage, convinced that the institution will force her to subdue her free spirit. This is her reasoning when she rejects the marriage proposal of the moral, well-mannered sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). When fate intervenes, and Gabriel loses his sheep herd in a horrific accident while Bathsheba inherits her uncle's wheat and grain farm enterprise, their fortunes are reversed. Gabriel goes from a wealthy bachelor to a desperate farmhand, and the empathetic Bathsheba allows him to work on her new farm. Bathsheba proves successful in her new endeavor, and her sustaining empire attracts even more suitors that she's fond of turning down. One of them is the lonely, middle-aged William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a man of much wealth and little company. When a practical joke leads Boldwood to think Bathsheba is interested, he proposes almost immediately, only to find that the feeling is not mutual. Now, especially with her growing business, she finds the need of a husband even more useless than she originally thought. If she were to change her opinion on marriage, it would not be for William Boldwood.

Bathsheba's stance becomes complicated when she accepts advances from the rapscallion Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge). Troy does not believe in the formal requests of Oak and Boldwood, instead preferring direct contact. His aggressive approach - taking her aside, showing off his sword skill before kissing her - excites Bathsheba, so much so that she elopes with the handsome military man, and returns to her farm with a new husband. But Troy's reputation as a drunk and gambler begins to cause trouble. Oak, always Bathsheba's most trusted advisor, warned of Troy's behavior, and his prophecy proves true when we learn of Troy's obsessive romance with an ex-fiance named Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple) who left him on their wedding day - but Fanny has returned, pregnant with Troy's child and sickly. Meanwhile, Bathsheba's farm is quickly succumbing to debts acquired from Troy's drinking and gambling. With Oak's soft-spoken admiration, Boldwood's grief-ridden pining and Troy's irresponsible behavior, Bathsheba finds her world swirling with attentions of the three men. For the woman who swore to avoid romantic entanglements, Bathsheba uses all her will to balance the man she loves, the man she needs and the man she married.

Madding Crowd's screenplay (written by David Nicholls) compacts Hardy's lengthy novel. The film clocks in under two hours, and has the breeziness of a film confident in its own adaptation. Much like Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice from 2005, this film finds the right way to hit all the main points without feeling rushed. A lot of the credit here goes to the cast. Mulligan, it what may be her best role to date, seems to have a preternatural understanding of Bathsheba. The character's constant defiance in the face of male authority leads her onto the wrong path from time to time, and Mulligan knows how to show this bull-headedness without sacrificing Bathsheba's intelligent charm. Mulligan was also in Wright's Pride and Prejudice, and that film also had a lead actress (Keira Knightley in that instance) who found a refreshingly contemporary way to portray an often-portrayed character. Mulligan is fantastic here - it's the first time she's been allowed to play a woman without a catch. In previous roles like An Education and Never Let Me Go, her fortunes were too tightly tied to male characters; she was good in the roles, but they provided her with no agency. Here she plays a character that is so fundamentally in control of the story, but still is able to add the modesty necessary for the audience to accept her imperfections. Mulligan was an 'it girl' after An Education, but that was in 2009, and this is the first legitimately exciting role she's gotten since then.

Across from Mulligan is Schoenaerts, a Belgian actor who's lumbering size can make him imposing, but here plays subdued conscience. The last time I'd seen him, he was punching holes in a frozen river in Rust and Bone - that performance took advantage of his physicality, where this one works despite that. Schoenaerts is not an English speaker by nature, and his performance is best when he's not speaking. His loving, but contained gaze gives off the appropriate amount of ache. It's Oak's strength that allows Bathsheba to persevere through Troy's maddening behavior and Boldwood's desperate clamoring, and Schoenaerts gives Mulligan the perfect scene partner to play off of. As Boldwood, Michael Sheen is the perfect actor. He's amiable and simple, he looks like he's spent his entire life as the butt of somebody's joke. Sheen isn't given much to do here, but he plays his part well. We always know that Boldwood will play a bigger part than we're given privy too and a shocking end proves us right. This feels like Vinterberg's arrival as an adult filmmaker. His brilliant 2013 film The Hunt felt a lot closer to his Dogme roots than this does, but Madding Crowd is certainly meant for a broader audience. It's obvious that the Dane has more range as a storyteller than we may have originally thought, and that he's capable of lush romance as opposed to gritty transgression. With the rise of BBC and Masterpiece Theatre, costume drama features feel like an outdated model, but this latest Madding Crowd proves that it can still be done exquisitely.

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