Thomas Vinterberg’s screen adaptation of Far From The Madding Crowd opens on a long shot of Bathsheba Everdene (a terrific Carey Mulligan) opening the door to a dark barn. Illuminated by just a glimmer of light, she’s dressed sensibly in a leather coat and trousers, readying her horse. In voiceover, she explains that some say she’s too independent. As she rides through the hills and forest, sometimes even lying back on her horse, Vinterberg shoots her in long shot, offering us an image of a woman in charge of her path, moving through the greens of the meadow and the blue sky. Whereas the book begins from the perspective of Farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the film sets its agenda to prioritize slightly differently from the start. This is Bathsheba’s story told largely from her perspective, even in her own words.
Despite the fact that Thomas Hardy wrote the book in the late 19th century, Bathsheba is a surprisingly modern woman. My only complaint might be that men fall head-over-heels for Bathsheba not just for her striking personality, but because she’s conveniently beautiful, too. Fully aware that marrying would also mean becoming someone’s property, by law, Bathsheba is determined to remain single even when she’s penniless.
But there would be no story without suitors, and Bathsheba has three, at various points in the story: , her stalwart friend and partner, Gabriel Oak; her proud and wealthy new neighbour, Mr. Boldwood (Michael Sheen); and the rakish Officer Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). She commands their respect. Most of them wouldn’t dare tell her what to do. And it’s remarkable that she’s allowed to make mistakes, recover, and start again.
Gabriel first proposes to Bathsheba, rather abruptly after first meeting. She turns him down, despite the fact that she would benefit from the security he’s offering. As played by Matthias Schoenaerts, Gabriel practically smoulders on screen. And as Mulligan’s close up reveals, Bathsheba feels a stirring of desire for him that she can’t quite acknowledge. Once she inherits her uncle’s farm, which gives her a stable, independent income, the idea of a man in her life seems even more superfluous.
Bathsheba’s newfound inheritance arrives just as Gabriel loses his farm to debt. As Bathsheba rides her horse-drawn carriage to her new home, dressed in brand new scarlet clothes, Gabriel wanders the countryside with nothing but a pack on his back. Fate brings them together again when he unknowingly seeks work at her new farm. Never using their past intimacy against her, Gabriel proves a loyal employee with nothing but respect for Bathsheba. The first time she gathers her staff together in a room, she’s seated behind a desk in the position of power — Vinterberg frequently pays great attention to illustrating power dynamics, visually, in a scene — and as she commands the room, we cut to closeups of Gabriel smiling at her in quiet admiration.
Bathsheba’s boldness at the farm, insisting on managing her business affairs herself, while lending a hand in the field or even the mud, quickly earns her the respect of her employees and peers. Gabriel grows into a close friend and confidant, always there to catch her if she falls. Their closeups start to be connecting by a single shot, swiveling from one to the other, before they’re ready to be seen, primarily, in close up, side by side, like partners. But he’s no push over but he also understands his rank and place. They’re constantly in a dance of give-and-take: he won’t let her order him around when she needs him most. He offers his opinion when he feels he can help, but he won’t push the subject any further. His is the only opinion she values though she can be stubborn about shutting him up when she knows it’s going to be something she doesn’t want to hear.
Even in a crowded room, their eyes always meet. But even their enormous chemistry can’t surmount her pride now that he’s beneath her. At a celebratory dinner with the staff, seated at the head and foot of the table, their eyes warmly meet across the crowded room. But when Mr. Boldwood arrives unexpectedly, Gabriel must give up the seat of honour and take his seat in the middle of the table. What Vinterberg does here is terrific, placing Gabriel physically in the middle of the potential new lovers. He gazes back and forth between them, sometimes as a blurry, almost irrelevant figure. When Bathsheba sings for the group, Mr. Boldwood joins her in duet, in alternating closeups — the same visual queues she once shared with Gabriel at the beginning of their relationship. But it’s telling that once a proposal is made, in a medium two-shot, Boldwood invades her close-up.
But it’s Officer Frank Troy, a man of noble blood but no money, who manages to win Bathsheba’s hand in marriage through flattery and boldness. Because he lacks the propriety and respectfulness of her other suitors, only Frank dares to kiss her, touch her, or even deliberately awaken anything sexual — albeit in the shelter of the green forest. It’s enough to persuade her to hastily marry, despite Gabriel’s attempt to caution her. When we see them together next, Frank is driving her carriage — a troubling reversal from how we first met our heroine. In stolen, private moments, we see Frank’s attempted dominance doesn’t sit well with his wife or Gabriel.
Even as a married woman, Bathsheba’s friendship with Gabriel continues to deepen. They treat each other more and more as equals, even when he doesn’t agree with her choices. A series of narrative MacGuffins interfere to give Bathsheba more trouble in her marriage, as well as new hope. But the men who love her, or pretended to, so easily become casualties of her pride and poor choices, that by the end, we’re left wondering if the moral is that she should have just married Gabriel when he first proposed, sparing heartbreak and worse for all. Yet she didn’t know then, as she does by the end of the film, that they could be truly equal partners, that she need not be tamed, and that he would never be able to treat her as property even if the law allowed it. Then again, if premarital sex or divorce were easy possibilities, Bathsheba’s troubles would have been much more easily solved. Is Hardy’s story meant as a cautionary tale? Or, to our modern eyes, does it merely expose the problems with a patriarchal system?
There’s nothing ostentatious about Vinterberg’s direction, but it’s immensely effective. He’s constantly using the rustic landscape to tell the story, whether it’s shooting it in long shot as beautifully idyllic, or sending Bathsheba into lush, tall, green woods to meet Frank, highlighting the rich blues to create a place of forbidden eroticism. When framing Gabriel and Bathsheba in a two-shot, Vinterberg finds increasingly romantic and dramatic compositions, once even showing them in silhouette from behind as they watch the rain. Whether it’s the blue and pink of the sunset or the golden light of the afternoon, each exquisite frame is lit by cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen for romantic effect.
Yet Far From the Madding Crowd is also a very personal story. Because the performances are so precisely understated, you have to watch closely to see how much each frame reveals. Although Bathsheba tries to maintain an implacable front, remaining polite and self-possessed, in closeup, Mulligan reveals an uncertain Bathsheba in conflict. With Gabriel, we see Bathsheba relax while she Frank’s brutishness makes her uncomfortable. The Belgian Schoenaerts, whose English accent sometimes falters, is at his best in silent moments. When talking to Mr. Boldwood about Boldwood’s feelings for Bathsheba, he fidgets slightly, with his eyes downcast, burying his face in his scarf, revealing his discomfit. Gabriel still harbours feelings of his own.