April 29, 2015


Far_from_the_madding_crowdWhat a difference a remake can make. Audiences familiar with John Schlesinger’s languorous 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel may have their breath taken away by Thomas Vinterberg’s streamlined women’s-lib update. For the record, Schlesinger’s rendering was the second of (now) four versions of Hardy’s 1874 book. Those who haven’t seen Schlesinger’s original are in for something unexpected and delightful. 

Much credit goes to screenwriter David Nicholls’s instincts for fleshing out the dramatic and personality-rich themes in Hardy’s story of misplaced affections, creating a modern reading of a headstrong woman living ahead of her time in rural 19th century England. Here is a textbook example of how a remake can improve on an older film. Vinterberg’s picture may still not come close to the most successful film adaptation of Hardy’s work — that would be Roman Polanski’s exquisite “Tess” (based on “Tess of the d'Urbervilles”), featuring Nastassja Kinksi’s earth-shattering breakout performance.

Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba Everdene has been imbued with a more 21st century sense of independent womanhood. When the time comes to bathe her farm’s sheep, she plunges into the filthy water to help, regardless of the inappropriate dress she wears. Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdene with more of an intellectual bent than was afforded Julie Christie’s haughty sexpot portrayal of the same role in Schlesinger’s film. Christie’s Bathsheba veered toward bitchiness, whereas Mulligan’s character is more of a sprite who knows how to listen and act. When the shrewd Bathsheba negotiates the cost of her grain at a wholesale market, in this version we witness the details of the transaction. Her introduction, wearing a cordovan leather corset-styled riding jacket, embodies Bathsheba’s down-to-earth qualities.  

Bathsheba rebuffs the marriage of her (ostensibly) most compatible suitor Gabriel Oak (brilliantly played by cinema’s best kept secret Matthias Schoenaerts). Gabriel herds his sheep nearby to the home where Bathsheba lives with her aunt. Having admired her from afar, Gabriel brings a baby sheep as a gift in order to steal a private audience with Bathsheba and make his proposal of marriage. Bathsheba plays coy and keeps herself at a distance  

MaddingCrowdThe storyline remains comparatively similar to the 1967 version. Some camera angles seem to match shot for shot. A major exception lies in less emphasis on Bathsheba’s firebrand soldier boy suitor Sergeant Francis (Frank) Troy, with whom Terrence Stamp ran away in Schlesinger’s version. Here, the little-known Tom Sturridge inhabits the role with less a physically imposing frame than Stamp’s same character. One significant third-act modification of Sturridge’s reliably unreliable character elevates the story’s most climatic moment to a revelation of horrific proportions.

The film’s secret weapon is Michael Sheen in the role of Bathsheba’s love-struck neighbor William Boldwood, who selflessly awaits her acceptance of a marriage proposal that she blithely incites on a lark. In a scene of self-revelation, Sheen’s tragic Boldwood exposes his subservient romantic identity in a way that stings for the cruelty that it exposes in Bathsheba’s otherwise admirable character. She can’t resist stringing him along. Bathsheba has a sadistic streak. Sheen’s beautifully muted but expressive performance is impeccable.  

Thomas Vinterberg is best known as a co-founder of the Dogme 95 movement (with Lars von Trier, Kristian Levring, and Soren Kragh-Jacobsen). His remarkable 1998 Dogme film “The Celebration” established him as a dynamic auteur able to dig deep into the marrow of familial conditions. As unlikely as it seems on the surface, Vinterberg’s transition from a relatively unknown Danish filmmaker and film theorist to the director of what promises to be an enormously successful romantic period drama, has an intrinsic logic. He knows how to get to the crux of drama.  


Rated PG-13. 119 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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