14 March 2016 | JamesHitchcock
Solid, well-made period drama- but not the definitive version
This film, by the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, is the first cinematic adaptation of Thomas Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd" since John Schlesinger's famous version in 1967. The story is too well- known for me to set out the plot at any length, but it revolves around the adventures of Bathsheba Everdene, a young female landowner in Victorian Dorset, and the three men who love her. These are Gabriel Oak, a humble shepherd, William Boldwood, a neighbouring farmer, and Frank Troy, a sergeant in a cavalry regiment.
Vinterberg has set himself a difficult task. Schlesinger's film was a landmark of British cinema, marking the beginning of what I have come to think of the "heritage cinema" style of film-making. In my eyes at least, and I suspect in the eyes of many others, it has become the definitive version; I cannot re-read the novel- it is a favourite of mine and I have read it several times- without picturing Bathsheba as Julie Christie, Gabriel as Alan Bates, Troy as Terence Stamp or Boldwood as Peter Finch.
Like Schlesinger, Vinterberg sticks fairly closely to Hardy's story, although of necessity some minor episodes have had to be omitted. There were one or two touches I didn't really care for, such as the scene where Troy grabs Bathsheba by the crotch. In the novel Hardy describes Troy's seduction of the young woman with great delicacy. This is not just a question of Victorian prudery, but also of psychological realism. A girl as independent and determined as Bathsheba would have resented such a crude approach; had Troy attempted it he would doubtless have got his face slapped for his pains. I also felt that this version rather inflated the social status of both Bathsheba and Boldwood. In the novel both are prosperous farmers, but nothing more. Here they live in the sort of style which would suggest she is the Lady of the Manor and he a wealthy aristocrat.
Hardy's novel is, among other things, a celebration of the English countryside, and this aspect is brought out well here. Like Schlesinger's, the film is visually attractive with some striking photography of the rural landscapes, often seen bathed in a soft, golden glow. On the acting side I was most impressed by Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel. His interpretation is rather different from Bates's, making his character perhaps more genteel and less rough-hewn, but still a man of great sensitivity and integrity. The Belgian-born Schoenaerts speaks flawless English with no hint of a foreign inflection, although it is noticeable that, unlike Bates, he does not attempt a West Country accent. Possibly wisely- English regional accents can be notoriously difficult for foreign-born actors.
On the other hand, I was less impressed by Tom Sturridge who makes an unmemorable Troy, lacking the roguishness and devil-may-care charm which Stamp brought to the role. Michael Sheen is better as Boldwood, but never quite matches Finch's desperate, nervous intensity. The difference, perhaps, is that Sheen's Boldwood is obsessed by Bathsheba whereas Finch's is almost literally possessed by her. Carey Mulligan has plenty of experience in films of this type, having inherited the crown formerly worn by Helena Bonham-Carter and Keira Knightley, that of Reigning Queen of Period Drama. She has been praised for her performance here, but personally I preferred Christie's rather more imperious and headstrong interpretation. Vinterberg's film is a generally solid, well- made piece of period drama, but for me it will not replace Schlesinger's as the definitive version. 7/10