A Classic Love Story for a Modern Audience: 'Far From the Madding Crowd' Film Review
by Will Lindus
While Far From the Madding Crowd was technically released on May 1st, 2015, there is a certain genius to the fact that the film expands beyond Los Angeles and New York just in time for Mother’s Day weekend. After all, with Avengers: Age of Ultron continuing to dominate at the box office, cinephiles will be looking for appropriate counter-programing to enjoy with the matriarchs of their clans. Far From the Madding Crowd may be a love story, but the film’s literary roots (based on the Thomas Hardy novel of the same name), sweeping settings, and avoidance of gratuitous or uncomfortable sex scenes make this a romantic movie that you wont’t feel awkward about seeing with your mother.
But here’s the secret: the film is good enough that you might just enjoy it, too.
Set in Victorian England, Far From the Madding Crowd tells the story of Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a bold and independent farm owner who is courted by three men with radically different personalities and professions. Will Bathsheba choose Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the stoic and respectful sheep farmer? How about William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a wealthy older man who owns the adjacent farm? Or maybe Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), the charming yet hot-headed military man?
Victorian-era romances have a tendency to favor stilted dialogue and impractical melodrama. While both elements are present to some degree in Far From the Madding Crowd, directly stemming from the source material, the powerful performances by the incredibly capable cast keep the film from shifting into parody territory. Mulligan is extraordinary as Bathsheba, a role that requires a complex blend of strength and uncertainty. For a genre that is often dominated by female characters who are no more than wilting flowers left to the whims of the men who sweep them off their feet, it is refreshing to see a female protagonist who has the gumption to think for herself and the ability to make decisions from a position of power.
Though Mulligan carries the emotional heft of the film on her shoulders, it is Schoenaerts who astonishes as the bedrock of the film. In the abstract, there isn’t anything impressive about the role itself; Oak is the type of romantic lead you would expect in such a film, compassionate yet reliable, strong yet caring, all the while demonstrating patience and reverence. Schoenaerts nails all of these traits, but does so with subtle charisma and charm. Simply put, when Schoenaerts is on the screen, he demands your attention without ever chewing up the scene.
This isn’t a perfect film; as mentioned before, the melodramatic elements from the classic novel creep their way into the film in sometimes unwelcome ways. In places, the dramatics become so overwrought that the characters become unrelatable. This is only exacerbated by the strange and unpredictable choices Bathsheba makes as she navigates the corridors of her heart, pursuing whims that left this reviewer scratching his head at times. When analyzed on a deeper level, her motivations begin to take shape; early in the story, she is seen as an impulsive woman who yearns to be tamed, but rebels when stability seeks to claim her. As she matures, and as the men in her life begin to exert their will, she starts to understand that what she desires is at loggerheads with her place in society.
This may make sense on an analytical level, but a romantic movie should place higher emphasis on emotional resonance. Audiences are not going to take the time to sort through Bathsheba’s erratic motivations, and will likely find themselves guffawing at some of the more random, poorly considered choices. Still, enough can’t be said of Mulligan’s performance and her ability to ground such a scattered character in mostly believable emotional beats beyond the scope of the script.
Far From the Madding Crowd will likely be a forgotten film that makes little splash this year. The beautiful cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen will probably be overlooked during awards season by the inevitable trick-shot films that look to borrow from the success of Emmanuel Lubezki’s work on Gravity and Birman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). This is a true shame because Christensen’s gorgeous shots highlight the picturesque English countryside and the decadent farm manors with compelling simplicity.
While Far From the Madding Crowd may not be for all audiences, I encourage you to give it a shot, even if Victorian romances are not your cup of tea (pinky finger daintily raised, of course). Even the most hardened of audiences should find value in the compelling story or the legitimately impressive performances. See it with your mother and talk with her afterward about the choices Bathsheba made and why she made them. I’m sure she’ll appreciate it more than hearing you rattle on about Iron Man and Thor for the umpteenth time.
3.5 out of 5 Bear Paws