Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Movie Review: Far From the Madding Crowd

Far From the Madding Crowd
Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg.
Written by: David Nicholls based on the novel by Thomas Hardy.
Starring: Carey Mulligan (Bathsheba Everdene), Matthias Schoenaerts (Gabriel Oak), Michael Sheen (William Boldwood), Tom Sturridge (Sergeant Frank Troy), Juno Temple (Fanny Robin), Rowan Hedley (Maryann Money), Chris Gallarus (Billy Smallbury), Connor Webb (Merchant), Penny-Jane Swift (Mrs. Coggan), Rosie Masson (Soberness Miller), Alex Channon (Temperance Miller), Shaun Ward (Farmer), Roderick Swift (Everdene farmer), Don J Whistance (Constable), Jamie Lee-Hill (Laban Tall).

There is such a lack of “strong female characters” headlining movies these days, that it’s doubling disappointing when one comes out that should be a great example, but is lacking. Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd has the fascinating heroine Bathsheba Everdene at its core – and yes, Suzanne Collins did take the last name for her own heroine in The Hunger Games – who is a woman living in England where normally all women were allowed to do is get married, and become a man’s property. But Bathsheba is different – starting the story as an educated woman, with little money, she soon inherits a farm from her uncle, which elevates her stature. It also means that she doesn’t need a man at all anymore – as she makes clear to her multiple suitors. She is strong willed and self-possessed, and very capable of running that farm, which no one thought she could. And then she makes a colossal blunder – out of the three suitors who have proposed marriage to her, she picks the worst of the three. She didn’t really need any husband at all – and certainly didn’t need him. What, for me, sinks the movie is the fact that her choice doesn’t make any sense at all in addition to the fact that very end of the movie strikes a false note. Instead of making Bathsheba into a stung by flawed and realistic woman, the filmmakers seem to concentrate only on the strong part – turning her more into a symbol than a realistic person – which is what my idea of a strong female character really is.
The movie opens with Bathsheba, an orphan, working for her Aunt. She doesn’t have any money – but doesn’t much care. She is headstrong, and gets through just fine. She draws the attention of Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) – a local shepherd, the strong silent type, who proposes marriage quickly, and is rejected just as quickly. Her uncle dies, and Oak loses his herd, so their positions become reversed – and she needs a shepherd, and with no other options, he accepts her job offer. There is a current that runs between them however, and it represented is a series of loaded looks between them – and occasionally a brief conversation, where he’ll say perhaps a little bit more than is prudent to your boss. Meanwhile, she has drawn the attention of another suitor – William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) – a wealthier farmer, with a nearby farm of 1,000 acres. The man no one thought would ever get married, is all of a sudden in love – but he’s terribly shy and awkward, and Bathsheba rejects him as well. The man she does not reject is Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge), a man we see jilted by his fiancĂ©e, Bathsheba’s former employee, Fanny Robin (Juno Temple) – although by accident, which he never knows. A quick flirtation – and a single scene of seduction involving his sword (which is one of the best moments in the film) –and they’re married before she realizes he’s a pouty, spoiled little boy who could ruin her.

It’s that scene with the sword – where Troy seduces Bathsheba that is supposed to explain why she marries him – as in that scene, her sexual repression is lifted. Mulligan plays the scene well – although up until that point, she had never given any indication that she was sexually repressed at all – nor does she show much interest in sex for the rest of the movie. Mulligan is a fine actress, but I think that like the filmmakers, she so interested in make Bathsheba into a role model, that she forgot to make her a character first. It doesn’t help that Sturridge is completely lacking in charisma in the movie – he’s an ass from the start, and someone everyone except Bathsheba sees through.

Better performances are delivers by Schoenaerts and Sheen however – particularly when the two of them are together. They have both had their heart broken the same woman, and know it, but instead of being jealous of or competitive with each other, they share their sadness. Sheen, in particular, makes what could very well have come across as a creepy or just plain pathetic character into a sympathetic one.

The film is directed by Thomas Vinterberg – working about as far away as imaginable from his breakthrough film, The Celebration (1998) and its Dogme 95 rules. The cinematography – by Charlotte Bruus Christensen – is a highlight, as they often shoot in the magic hour, as the sun goes down. The film is beautiful to look at from start to finish – with wonderful period detail. The film feels more like the work of someone like Jan Troell than a typical British costume drama – and that works for the film.

But overall, I think the film just never quite comes together, try as it does. I wanted to like it – to truly like Mulligan’s performance, and the story in general. But the film just doesn’t quite come together – it wants to make Bathsheba too one dimensionally good and strong – and not dwell on her faults. That doesn’t make her a strong female character – but an unrealistic one.

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