FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD. Once I was at the salon with a new stylist who had just moved from San Francisco to Humboldt for love only to break up right away. The other clients and stylists bemoaned the dearth of legitimately employed, responsible, attractive, single men in Humboldt County, telling her, "Move back! Move to Portland! There are no men here!" I can't speak to the truth of that, but the refrain repeats on a regular enough basis that perhaps single-and-looking ladies in Humboldt will be swept up by Thomas Vinterberg's Far From the Madding Crowd, a respected 1874 literary classic by Thomas Hardy and very silly movie starring Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene (literary ancestor of and inspiration for Katniss!). I can't think who else might.
The original novel has been adapted into plays, films, a comic strip, an opera and a musical, as well as being listed by the Guardian as the 10th best love story of all time. It's been described as "subversive." This current film adaptation, however, is formula romance novel with all the implications: an impulsive temptress of a heroine, a cadre of suitors, glorious countryside and enough symbolism to choke an English major.
We open with Everdene nuzzling her horse, then mounting him to race without reserve across the sumptuous hillside as the ocean spreads wide and salty on the horizon. Spent, she leads the beautifully muscled animal into the forest, where she lays back content as her steed carries onward. Handsome Gabriel Oak is shepherding his flock when he glimpses her through the trees, one of which happens to snag her scarf. Our heroine fails to notice this, which gives Oak a reason to talk to her — "talk" being the exchange of a few sentences and, more importantly, Everdene's impish grin and Oak's infatuated gaze. (Oak is played by Matthias Schoenaerts, aka the Belgian Ryan Gosling.) She returns to the farm where she milks a cow, lovingly stroking the swollen udder. Eventually, the mighty Oak shows up at Everdene's house with a lamb and a proposal. Alas, she is too independent for him. She would need someone to tame her, she explains, and Oak will never be able to. To her credit — and Mulligan is excellent in this — she rejects him with enough charm and sincerity that she remains likeable and we must respect her decision, even though we all know they're going to — does it count as a spoiler if it's astoundingly obvious? — end up together eventually.
That's not the end of poor Oak's trouble with independent-minded creatures. His new sheepdog is lousy at his job — if you're sensitive to animal peril, this is an opportune time to fetch some popcorn or tiptoe out to the restroom – resulting in Oak losing his livelihood. Meanwhile, Everdene inherits her uncle's farm in a nearby village, enabling her to assume an independence at a time women had few options. (In case we're unaware that a good marriage was the pinnacle of a woman's hope in the 1870s, Everdene's young female assistant explicitly spells it out, "To have a choice!") The two meet again, this time with Oak finding work at Bathsheba's farm, providing many opportunities for him to demonstrate the finer arts of manhood: saving the barn from fire, saving the sheep from bloating, saving the knives (if not the movie) from dullness and generally moving about with understated strength.
Enter William Boldwood, a rich neighboring farmer whose wood is anything but. He does, he tells Everdene, have a grand house and "many unusual pigs," but his repressed nature has kept him a distant bachelor into middle age despite all the single ladies in town vying for his attention. Until now. And Mulligan's Bathsheba does appeal — she's smart but vulnerable, an invitation to adventure with an exceptionally tiny waist. Last but not least is Sergeant Frank Troy, the dashing and dastardly young soldier. He immediately desires Bathsheba and moves far more boldly than Oak or Boldwood dare, artfully eliciting sexual desire in a way that is more alarming than erotic. (If a man you don't know tells you you're the most beautiful thing he's seen, tells you to meet him in the "hollow of the fern," where he then wants to swing his sword about your person, do not say yes!) The swordplay is clearly foreplay and no one is surprised when this Trojan horse of a man follows it with, "And now I'll take this" — "this" being his tongue in her mouth and with that, her kissing virginity.
More drama ensues as Everdene is undone by her own desire, leaving us to wonder how Boldwood and Troy will ultimately be dispatched so that the ever-noble Oak can finally win Bathsheba. But that is all the speculation the film offers. For a movie sold on the premise of a woman having her choice of three suitors, the question is never truly who, only when and how. It's lovely to look at and the acting is indeed fine, but the film is too far from the madding — the pulse fails to quicken. PG13. 119m.
— Jennifer Savage
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— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill