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'Far From the Madding Crowd' review, starring Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts and Michael Sheen

Delicately crafted and respectful as it could be, Thomas Vinterberg’s film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far From the Madding Crowd also sadly is listless in how plain-faced and milquetoast its execution becomes. Yes, the performances all around shine, and there’s a nicely refined elegance to the whole affair. Yet Vinterberg’s stilted direction and David Nicholls’ clumsy screenplay reduce the original text’s depth in favor of dull, straightforward storytelling. Shallow characters and a monotonous narrative belittle what once was probably a profound social study on feminism and modern romance.

Originally an anonymously published monthly serial in Cornhill Magazine, there’s an odd melodrama-feel to this tale. It follows Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a self-dependent and swift girl from Victorian England, who is bequeathed a farm to run. Forming a bond with local sheepherder Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) early on, the two locals become entangled in an emotionally restricted relationship, where possible affections are held adrift as two other suitors, Sergeant Francis Tory (Tom Sturridge) and the prosperous William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), seem just as taken by Bathsheba’s presence.

As the years past, so to do fortunes good and sorrowful come into each other’s paths. Through it all do Bathsheba and Gabriel remain connected, forming a simple and quaint friendship to help each other along. And in these moments does Far From the Madding Crowd seem attuned with itself and the most directly satisfying. The emotions are reasonable, the performances are nicely subdued and their relationship together is the only thing to progress naturally. It’s clear this is meant to be the heart of the film, and indeed it would be had it not grown as convoluted and dapper as it does. But more will be said about that in a moment.

Purely on a visual level is Vinterberg’s film stunning, and no one should short its gorgeous looks. Be it vivid landscapes or well-framed character shots, cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, aided by fine lightning work, gives this retelling a sublimely crisp beauty. Every sequence invigorates with its rich optical pleasure, so it’s a pity story framing around it becomes so tepid that it makes even the shots feel muted.

While ever sophisticated, Far From the Madding Crowd is also overly straightforward, to the point where it’s lackluster purely through its mundane banality. Its traditional storytelling takes little value in the essence of any given moment. The pacing is deliberate, but because its account is so hastily told this adaptation only rarely allows the nuance of any moment to shine. And even when it does, like its final scene tries, the emotions of the moment are never earned and cause no visceral or motivational response. It’s narratively transparent, which can be fine enough, but because the story is slow mismanaged there’s nothing particularly new or meaningful to grasp as this comes to its conclusion.

This is not to mention Nicholls’ inclusion of the most blunt dialogue heard on screen in some time. With characters saying lines like “If we loose the barn, we lose everything” off-screen or “If you continue to gamble, we’ll lose the farm” directly on camera, it makes the film’s rushed and fractured storytelling more apparent and amateurish, especially in how paper-cutter its story feels as it keeps on and on.

It’s a testament to the cast for keeping this as afloat as possible, and indeed every primary character does exceptional work. Mulligan is exquisite as Bathsheba, poised and lovely in ways both humbly and sincerely emoted. Sheen too gives the most emotionally rewarding performance, as his confused, far-too-distant character hosts the text’s most devastating weight. Sturridge’s character may be the most mismanage, but his performance helps even out his story problems, and while Schoenaerts’ stocky, internalized performance is unlike most in these stuffy dramas, his quiet nuance resonates deeper the longer he’s on screen.

Juno Temple also shows up far-too-briefly, and sadly plays little more than a doe-eyed plot convention in the movie’s adapted screenplay. And while she’s yet another supporting character mauled, at least’s Vinterberg’s direction lingers on the performances enough to make them withstand. They would be more sterling were the choppiness of the plotting been less apparent and consistent, and as the borderline schlock-level climax comes on-screen it’s hard to tell if this movie is meant to be all that serious.

Indeed, as hints of dry humor are found throughout, Vinterberg’s film would have benefited from a more apparent sense of humor. It’s never clear just what’s to gain from this, and while a quiet retrospective would work with this multi-years story, the poorly coordinated storytelling makes this a near possibility. The performances are there, and the visuals have a fine grandeur, but because the director and screenwriter all-too-often let the ball slip their hands this new Hardy retelling falls flat. Period pieces are an uphill battle, but as seen before, they can find interesting way to engage a timeless tale. Far From the Madding Crowd is as familiar as can be, and that it doesn’t do anything with it nor do it particular well is quite madding.

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