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Carey Mulligan shines in Far From the Madding Crowd

Not normally an aficionado for costume dramas cut from esteemed literary cloth, there are only a few common factors that engender anything more than a “meh” and a disinterested pass, personally speaking. Usually, it’s a director better known for being accomplished in other forms and genres (Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, for example, was the most recent one I loved) that piques a curiosity. More regularly, it’s the quality these directors bring of re-framing old stories to make them relevant rather than antiquated — with choices, personas and dilemmas that seem relatable, not laughably of an other, completely bygone era. Without fail, it’s that they’re incredibly visually beautiful.

Thomas Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd, adapted from a 19th century Thomas Hardy novel, bears the mark of all these qualities, supplementing them with an established (if a little atypical) ensemble of subtle and complex performers. Carey Mulligan, who of course cut her teeth with Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, is probably the most comfortable in this setting, though her role is the complete opposite here. A testament to her career progression since a decade ago, she envelops the screen wholly with an understated, quietly forceful lead performance. Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge, on the other hand, surprise with their casting and characterisation as her potential love interests: one a humble, devoted English shepherd played by a Belgian; one a desperate, affluent nobleman played vulnerably by the not classically tall and not classically handsome Sheen; the last a sexually forward, brattish man-child ill fitting of his honorable soldier’s costume.

To add a little context, Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdene, who in 1870 Dorset, England inherits a farm from a deceased uncle. Asserting herself as a Mistress in a Master’s world, Vinterberg establishes the story as possibly centred around a strong woman’s journey toward the respect and social acceptance of her workers and peers. While that’s certainly a part of it — and the scenes where Everdene holds firm her ground with brutish men in work and trade are rewarding — the better angle from which to read Far From the Madding Crowd is of a woman’s journey towards an uncluttered and clearly defined acceptance of herself.

In this sense, the three bachelors help frame Everdene’s development by playing toward her differing ingrained needs, allowing us to read both what they can offer her and how these may later seed resentment and difficulty. Entirely enamoured by her, each alternately and quite humorously make premature proposals for her hand in marriage, but each are told no because each has complications: Mr. Oak (Schoenaerts) by class divide; Mr. Boldwood (Sheen) by his misplaced belief that comfort and completely providing for her will offset a plain lack of attraction; Sgt. Troy (Sturridge) by his misplaced belief that confronting her carnal desire should entitle him to a perverse sense of ownership.

If Far From The Madding Crowd were just two hours of watching a lesser actor navigate her love quadrangle, it would be tossed among the pile of passes, but Mulligan makes it a worthwhile investment. Every tiny moment of doubt, assertion, and decision is mapped on the minutae of her close-up expressions, and Vinterberg brings a distinctly foreign sensibility to the dialogue and characterisation that ensures the film never takes too seriously its Big, British Importance — even as Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s camera captures the southern British landscape in all its crushing, perpetually sunset glory. For all the beauty on the display, however, the most touching moment is an impromptu musical duet over dinner between Bathsheba and her most cultured, least suited suitor, a part that brings immediacy and a lingering thematic power to the whole by way of its chief refrain: ­­Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, indeed.

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