Thomas Vinterberg is a brave man – brave enough to take on Far From The Madding Crowd, in the certain knowledge that it is going to be compared to John Schlesinger’s 1967 masterpiece and inevitably found wanting. But perhaps I’m being unfair. Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp – these are all names that belong to another era and will mean very little to young cinema fans – and there’s no doubt that Carey Mulligan’s take on the tempestuous Bathsheba Everdean is as accomplished as you could reasonably want, even if some of her costumes – (the leather riding jerkin in particular,) don’t quite convince as being of the period.
Thomas ‘Chuckles’ Hardy is of course, a writer who excels in miserable stories and few come glummer than this tale of thwarted love and desire. Bathsheba is an orphan, who works as a farm labourer. The neighbouring farm is owned by handsome but taciturn shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoonaerts.) Gabriel takes a shine to Bathsheba and asks her to marry him, but she’s not quite ready to settle down yet and declines his offer. Shortly afterwards, as it is wont to do in Hardy novels, disaster strikes, robbing Gabriel of his livelihood and obliging him to move away. Bathsheba does rather better for herself, inheriting a farm when her Uncle dies unexpectedly. By a twist of fate, (or massive coincidence, whichever you prefer) she finds herself as Gabriel’s employer and is subsequently lusted after, both by her rich neighbour, Mr Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and by a rakish soldier, Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge.) Gabriel remains in the background, her ever watchful guardian angel. But which man will she end up with? And how many gallons of tears will be shed along the way?
Vinterberg, who came up through the Danish Festen cinema movement, makes a pretty good fist of this quintessentially English tale. The rolling landscape of Dorset is handsomely portrayed, the performances are all pretty much spot on (Sheen is in particularly good form as the tragic, obsessive Boldwood) and though the Sergeant Troy ‘reveal’ is handled far better in the Schlesinger version, it’s hard to fault such a meticulously rendered production. Hardy fans will perhaps feel that this version is more about Gabriel’s story than Bathsheba’s, but that seems to me a minor quibble. This is superior filmmaking and the results are well worth catching.