Second Breakfast: ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ (2015)

SecondBreakfast-01A few years ago I reviewed (and subsequently would not stop talking about) a sad Danish movie called The Hunt, directed by Thomas Vinterberg and starring Danish Superstar Mads Mikkelsen. It is with a heavy heart that I report to you that my reason for bringing this up now is sadly unrelated to Danish Superstar Mads Mikkelsen, although I challenge you to find a time when he isn’t relevant. No, I bring it up because I have finally just seen Vinterberg’s latest, and well, you know. I needed an introductory paragraph.

Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)

BBC Films

BBC Films

The Plot: After coming into a small fortune and inheriting a major farm in Dorset, the headstrong and independent Miss Bathsheba Everdene becomes the romantic target of three very different, and variably likable suitors, the middle-aged, well to-do neighboring estate-owner Mr. Boldwood (Michael Sheen), the dashing young scoundrel Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge), and the impoverished but kind-hearted shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), none of whom she finds particularly interesting.

When I found out that the director of my favorite film from 2013 had cast one of my favorite actresses in his next movie, I didn’t really care what it was; I was on board. What can I say? I’m a sucker for people I like. The fact that it was an adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel didn’t really bother either, probably only because I had never read a Thomas Hardy novel. A message to you literary types out there: that man’s poetry is deceptively good. Do not expect overlap between it and his prose. Anyway, then this trailer came out and that sealed the deal:

As it turns out the only real problem plaguing Far from the Madding Crowd is that it’s based on a Thomas Hardy novel. So much about the plot just doesn’t work. Emotionally, the characters meander from one pole to another, contradicting themselves as often as possible. Bathsheba staunchly refuses all advances, insisting that she doesn’t need a man and can manage her estate just fine on her own, maintaining this position rather admirably until Troy shoots her a seductive grin and then it’s just swoon city from there on out. Never mind all that characterization from the first half of the movie. I can’t make myself blame the actors for these inconsistencies, because they do their best to bring their otherwise bland characters to life in meaningful ways, and because I have a really hard time criticizing Carey Mulligan, but I certainly have no qualms at all criticizing the beloved canonical author Thomas Hardy. No sir. He got too bogged down in social commentary. I think we get all your gender and class stuff, Mr. Hardy. It’s pretty obvious.

As I said, though, everyone else really brought forth their A-game. Well, Tom Sturridge’s character is just an ass-hat, and there’s very little he could do to improve upon that, but hey, he tried. Matthias Schoenaerts, a pretty well-establish cute-but-rugged-foreign-guy at this point, did a commendable job realizing the character of cute-but-rugged-nice-guy-who’s-obviously-the-best-option-for-our-heroin-but-who-has-to-spend-most-of-the-movie-in-a-patient/wise-capacity. If ever there was such a thing as the friend zone, it was made for Gabriel Oak. Of the three men, Michael Sheen impresses the most, playing a middle-aged, somewhat class-bound not-quite-aristocrat. Gosh, I’m going hyphen-crazy. Sorry. Sheen performs to great effect, providing a great deal of depth and relatability to a character who really shouldn’t have had any of either. His thoughtful, meditative performance transforms this two-dimensional archetype into a three-dimensional human being, and I always love it when actors do that.

BBC Films But it's pretty clear from the beginning who's gonna get the girl.

BBC Films
But it’s pretty clear from the beginning who’s gonna get the girl.

But, yeah, obviously then there’s Carey Mulligan. As I said, Bathsheba’s character development doesn’t stretch too far beyond, “I don’t need men! Oh wait, this one’s cute, though.” Contradictions and inconsistencies like this make her occasionally difficult to get behind… or would, if played by a lesser actress. Between Pride and Prejudice and The Duchess and Anna Karenina and… so many other movies, it’s a wonder Keira Knightley hasn’t established a monopoly on period romantic dramas, but I am so glad she hasn’t. She’s exactly the type of actress who would have underplayed this character. I have yet to see Carey Mulligan bring anything but her A-Game to a movie, and Far from the Madding Crowd is no exception. She is truly one of the best in the business right now.

BBC Films Yeah... can't criticize.

BBC Films
Yeah… can’t criticize.

IMDb gives Thomas Vinterberg nineteen directing credits, and up until now I had only seen one of them, the aforementioned Danish masterwork The Hunt. Being a—bum bum bum—film student, I have become somewhat familiar with his shameful legacy: he created, along with—bum bum bum—Lars von Trier, the insufferable—bum bum bum—Dogme 95 movement; a forgivable sin, because doing a true-to-text adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel is about as far as you can get from Dogme 95. In his last two films, at least, he has stepped back into the light, and what a blessing that has been. His staging and framing merge seamlessly with the beautiful cinematography from Charlotte Bruus Christensen (who also shot The Hunt), and complemented nicely by the moving, somewhat James Newton Howard-esque original score by Craig Armstrong, who tones down his usual Moulin Rouge! pomp to deliver an appropriately somber and memorable soundtrack.

So yeah, aside from the fact that Far from the Madding Crowd tells an incredibly tired and uninventive tale of romantic turbulence, populated mostly by poorly-written caricatures, it’s a great movie. Basically, if you take the script out of the equation… oh wait, yeah, I forgot. You kind of need a script. Maybe this should have just been a series of unrelated, beautifully shot, perfectly acted, lavishly designed arthouse sequences. That… somehow may have been better. Of course, if you happen to be a Thomas Hardy fan, you may very well like Far from the Madding Crowd more than I did. Is that a rewarding existence? Loving Thomas Hardy? I’m curious. I don’t want to have to experience it myself, but I want to know.

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