Thomas Hardy’s 1874 pastoral novel about a willful, resourceful young Victorian woman facing cruel fate, making baffling decisions, and juggling the attentions of three suitors, has been filmed three times previously, most famously the atmospheric but sluggish 1967 version starring a ravishing Julie Christie, along with Peter Finch, Terence Stamp, and Alan Bates, directed by John Schlesinger.
In the fourth big screen version, the pace of the tragedy is much quicker, so quick that the film, directed by Thomas Vinterberg from an adaptation by David Nicholls, sometimes feels like Hardy via Wikipedia, lurching from one famous scene to another. The movie still feels too damn long, though. Carey Mulligan plays the headstrong, horseback riding, gun-friendly heroine Bathsheba Everdeen (yes, she inspired Katniss) who inherits a farm and is nobly supported by one of her employees, a love-stricken, soulful and faithful shepherd (the strapping Belgian actor, Matthias Schoenaerts, very miscast) who disastrously asks her to marry him. Meanwhile, the heroine mockingly sends a Valentine card to her wealthy, middle-aged adoring neighbor, played with great intelligence and pathos by Michael Sheen. She rejects his proposal, too, and virtually destroys him the process, falling instead for a shallow, arrogant but dashing soldier (Tom Sturridge) who seduces her with impressively phallic swordplay, marries her, and eventually leaves her near ruin.
Stripped to its basics, this is almost 19th century soap opera with Everdeen as a less vibrant, rapacious version of Scarlett O’Hara. But this is a pinched, fussy movie, great to look at, impressively shot, but cold to the touch. Mulligan is very good but her air of practicality and schoolmarm-y intelligence, let alone her now-patented knowing, inward smiles, don’t suggest a passionate, turbulent woman of the kind who can drive men mad — let alone three of them. Sturridge is just fine as the caddish soldier but he’s a pale shadow of Terrence Stamp, who played the role in the Schlesinger-directed film version of the ‘60s. Sheen is the heart of the movie and the best thing in it. In the end, this Far From the Madding Crowd is a handsome but bloodless version of the Hardy classic. ** ½