Thomas Vinterberg’s ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ is far from vapid

May 1, 2015, 12:26 a.m.

A young woman is divided by the pressures of society, the pangs of her heart and the good sense of her head in Danish auteur Thomas Vinterberg’s periodically flawed though always romantic adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel “Far From the Madding Crowd.” Vinterberg’s return to English-language filmmaking may struggle to define itself at first, but once “Madding Crowd” finds its feet, strong performances and a certain visual panache easily mark this exquisitely bucolic film as one of the most satisfying romances of the decade.

After taking up residence with her aunt in the English countryside, Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) sets out to make a life for herself. Equal parts assertive and levelheaded, Bathsheba is the type of woman who is unable to imagine herself bogged down by some chauvinistic nuisance of a husband. Thus, when successful shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) asks for her hand, Bathsheba declines, unable to bring herself to marry away her independence.

Months pass and, in a stroke of good fortune, Bathsheba inherits her deceased uncle’s farm, for which she promptly departs. Gabriel, on the contrary, is not so blessed and, after losing his herd in a peculiar accident, he inadvertently finds his fate in Bathsheba’s hands. Taking a newly vacated position on Bathsheba’s farm, Gabriel sets to work, and though he continues to pine for his mistress from afar, a parade of men more favored by Bathsheba (Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge) drive the winsome pair further and further apart.

It’s a riveting tale, packed from first frame with love, betrayal and even murder. Yet, despite all of the film’s early narrative theatrics, it’s first half is persistently undermined by a poorly defined aesthetic.

Tight framing meant to convey intimacy de-contextualizes, divorcing characters in space and creating an artificial sense of detachment. Handheld shots, though unique and curious, manufacture tension where none is necessary. Conversational encounters loaded with witty banter never fail to bore, unable to break from the constraints of shot-reverse shot and simplistic eye-line matches. As Vinterberg starts to spin his web of intrigue, “Madding Crowd” struggles to get off the ground, to show and not tell.

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Carey Mulligan and Tom Sturridge in “Far From the Madding Crowd.” (Courtesy of Alex Bailey, Fox Searchlight Pictures)

When Gabriel goes to work for the devoted Bathsheba, however, the film erupts into a parade of visually compelling exchanges. A stolen kiss in a golden thicket, a sweeping waltz on a snowy Christmas Eve: With flat exposition long abandoned, “Madding Crowd,” in its latter half, becomes a singular and striking tale of romance and self-exploration.

With an unmounted camera that roams without boundaries, Vinterberg repeatedly captures the beautiful intersection of the personal and the monumental. As Bathsheba finds herself touched for the first time, Vinterberg makes tangible both the passion of the moment and the ancient richness of the lovers’ surroundings. Here, the visual allure of nature compliments the individual, as if willing Bathsheba to embrace her sexual yearning.

As Bathsheba, Carey Mulligan convincingly realizes the independent woman’s ever-deepening understanding that love heralds a fiery satisfaction that lone prosperity can never truly provide. With a smile that articulates a hundred sentiments at once, Mulligan brings substance to a character who could otherwise be described as wispy and ill defined. Perhaps Mulligan lacks some of the volatile passion of the mercurial Bathsheba, but, with eyes that say more than words ever could, Mulligan easily compensates for her aversion to overt displays of emotion. Yet even with a powerhouse like Mulligan, it is Schoenaerts who stands out amid the film’s expertly assembled cast.

Carey Mulligan and Matthias Schoenaerts in “Far From the Madding Crowd.” (Courtesy of Alex Bailey, Fox Searchlight Pictures)

With carefully windswept hair and a beard unfamiliar with the word razor, Schoenaerts’ Gabriel is the gruff best friend we all know and love. Schoenaerts’ smirks are scarce, his lines are delivered with a playful sarcasm, and, when he speaks, he never sounds like a condescending sophisticate. Schoenaerts’ Gabriel is honest, perhaps a little cynical and more than a shade reliable. In comparison to the posh “men” for whom always Bathsheba seems to fall, Gabriel is the only man who has no desire to “take care of her.” He is the honorable sort and he knows how to recognize an equal.

You see, Bathsheba does not need a man to take care of her for she is, in essence, an ass-kicking, name-taking, feminist badass. The film’s script — by David Nicholls — wisely imagines Bathsheba as a woman with no intention of censoring herself for the stupid, myopic and misogynistic men who surround her in droves. When a man asks Bathsheba how she feels toward him, she replies: “It is difficult for a woman to express her feelings in a language chiefly made by men to express theirs.” Bathsheba is wickedly quick with her tongue and temper and, paired with Gabriel’s gentleness, it’s easy to get behind the balanced pairing.

In this regard, with the remarkable Bathsheba at the fore — and the scene-stealing Gabriel at her side, “Far From the Madding Crowd” turns a traditional romance into a stunningly executed affirmation of a woman’s right to self-determination and the essentiality of mutual respect and affection. Sure, Vinterberg’s latest may not be perfect, but it is most definitely far from the vapid crowd.

Contact Will Ferrer at wferrer ‘at’

Will Ferrer is a junior at Stanford, a current member of The Editorial Board, and a former Executive Editor, Managing Editor of Arts & Life, and Film/TV Desk Editor at The Stanford Daily. Will is double-majoring in Film and Media Studies and English Literature. After a childhood spent nabbing R-rated movies from his brother’s collection, Will is annoyingly passionate about all things entertainment. Heralding from Northern Virginia, Will abhors Maryland drivers and enjoys saying he is “essentially from Washington DC.” Contact him at [email protected].

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