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Review: Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)

Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)

Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg

Premise: Based on the novel by Thomas Hardy. Set in Victorian era England, an independent young woman (Carey Mulligan) manages a farm and the marriage proposals of three different suitors.

What Works: Far from the Madding Crowd is a well-designed production. This is a period piece and the audience for movies like this frequently takes some joy in the costumes and art direction. Unlike some movies taking place in earlier centuries, the filmmakers of Far from the Madding Crowd do not overdo the production design. The costumes and sets look of their time but they also looked lived in and the interiors appear more like dwellings and less like a movie set. Far from the Madding Crowd is also well cast. The film is led by Carey Mulligan as Bashsheba, a young woman who has inherited a fortune and takes over management of the family farm. The character is unusual in her time in that she is an unmarried woman who has wealth and no practical need of a husband. Mulligan plays Bashsheba with intelligence and fortitude but she also gives Bashsheba some emotional vulnerability that makes her empathetic. The movie has several scenes between Bashsheba and her staff that play very naturally and give the movie and the characters a sense of reality. Mulligan is paired with Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel, the shepherd who proposes to her before her inheritance and later comes to work for her as an employee. Like Mulligan, Schoenaerts gives the character a human dimension. He is gentlemanly and handsome in the way that audiences for period romances will enjoy but he is also accessible. For a movie romance to work the audience must want to see the characters get together and Mulligan and Schoenaerts are an agreeable on-screen couple. Far from the Madding Crowd also has a notable supporting performance by Michael Sheen as William Boldwood, a prosperous but lonely farmer. This could be a foolish character but Sheen gives him a quiet desperation that complicates the love story in an interesting way.

What Doesn’t: Far from the Madding Crowd reduces its story to a stereotypical romantic tale. Like a lot of romantic stories, this is a movie about a woman whose best match is right in front of her but she rebuffs his romantic advances while getting involved with the wrong guy before finally coming to her senses. There is very little surprise or dramatic tension as the film moves through the romantic boilerplate and in some ways it betrays its central character. Bashsheba is established as a headstrong but smart woman who is usually rational but when she meets the military sergeant (Tom Sturridge) she abandons all of that to be with a guy who is obviously going to be a lousy match for her. This could be done credibly if the filmmakers properly established Bashsheba’s romantic cravings and credibly played up her seduction but they don’t and so her decision to marry the sergeant comes across rash and stupid. There is a lack of tension in the movie. Audiences with any familiarity with the romance genre are going to see where this is going and wait for Bashsheba to get it together and figure out that her true love has been right in front of her the whole time. The final sequence of Far from the Madding Crowd is basically the airport scene from contemporary romantic stories. In its adherence to the romantic template, Far from the Madding Crowd often flattens its characters and subtext. Just as Jane Austin novels like Pride and Prejudice and Emma provide romantic stories as a way to critique the institution of marriage, Far from the Madding Crowd is about a woman asserting herself in a man’s world but that is lost and even undermined in the way the story is presented here.

Bottom Line: Far from the Madding Crowd has some very good production values and strong performances but the film plays like a Lifetime network movie. It doesn’t have much tension and it works through the romantic story template with little creativity and so it’s a mostly average romantic story.

Episode: #544 (May 31, 2015)