'Far from the Madding Crowd' a bare-bones stab at love, desire

Betsy Sharkey
Los Angeles Times Film Critic
Carey Mulligan is excellent as Thomas Hardy heroine Bathsheba Everdene in 'Far From the Madding Crowd'

Why is the allure of the bad boy so powerful that even some of the most secure of females can't seem to resist?

Apparently, it has ever been, as we see in the film adaptation of Thomas Hardy's prescient novel "Far from the Madding Crowd." Set in backcountry Britain circa 1870, the Victorian realist created romantic entanglements for its heroine, Bathsheba Everdene — an excellent Carey Mulligan — who could be plucked out of the pages of a contemporary bestseller.

Directed with sensitivity to the source by veteran Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg, the story is pared to the bone by screenwriter David Nicholls ("Great Expectations"). This is a far lighter examination of the emotional crosscurrents of love and desire that Hardy dived into so deeply. Less angst, less heart.

Still, "Far" makes its case that no matter how distant one gets from the madding crowd — in place or time — finding true love is just as bedeviling.

The film opens in rural England with its rich, green rolling pastures, its sheep perfectly scattered, its wheat and corn fields a patchwork of color and texture, the scene of the type that inspires painters. Verdant woods, winding roads, cobblestone villages.

Bathsheba is of the type who inspires painters too, a spirited beauty who cherishes her independence. As she puts it to the first man to ask for her hand, she isn't interested in being anyone's property. To a later suitor, she will say she is self-sufficient, in no need of a husband. If only a rogue hadn't come along to ruffle feathers.

The three men in Bathsheba's life comprise an interesting collection of characters and actors: Matthias Schoenaerts plays the long-devoted, stoic shepherd Gabriel Oak, Michael Sheen the gentleman farmer William Boldwood, and Tom Sturridge is Sgt. Francis Troy — the bad boy of the bunch.

All of this is wonderfully realized on-screen by a crack creative team starting with Danish cinematographer and frequent Vinterberg collaborator Charlotte Bruus Christensen and production designer Kave Quinn. Janet Patterson as head of costume design is perhaps the one responsible for coming up with a distinct vision for what could only be called farm couture. Somehow, the muck never messes with the dresses... Glasgow-born musician Craig Armstrong sets it all to a merry old England sound. Wind instruments are involved.

When her story begins, Bathsheba is helping her aunt with the hard work of a small farm. She is educated but orphaned and at that moment has nothing to her name but a marked independent streak and a comely face. Gabriel's is the next farm over, and it takes not much more than a few minutes of observation before he's smitten and asking to marry. Her answer is no.

Fortunes change. She inherits a distant uncle's farm and takes charge of putting the estate and its herds and produce in order, a shock to the locals. Gabriel loses his holdings and finds himself working for Bathsheba, or "Miss Everdene," as she reminds him, to make their relative position in life clear.

In small ways like this, "Far" exposes the class divides that have as much to do with marriage at the time as emotion.

Meanwhile, Boldwood, a bachelor whose farm is adjacent to Bathsheba's, is soon pursuing her. That she doesn't love him — a point she makes clear — is not an issue. For Boldwood, she is the treasure he cannot have, and soon he is obsessed.

With Gabriel much reduced in station but devoted still and Boldwood pressing for a commitment, the stage is set for the storm that is Sgt. Francis Troy.

Troy is coming off heartbreak. Winsome local farm maid Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple) is the reason. He has station but no money. And Bathsheba proves an easy mark.

This change of heart in our heroine suffers most from the leanness of the script. In Hardy's novel, her feelings are much more tied into Troy's sexual magnetism and what the young woman senses — that the dashing sergeant is the one man who doesn't need her.

In the film, however, it seems that just a bit of fancy sword work does the trick. All we've been given to believe about Bathsheba crumbles in a few unbelievable moments, along with a stray lock of hair the sword slices away. Even Mulligan, as good as she is at giving Bathsheba a spine and a spirit, fades at this point.

The film's best pairing is between Mulligan and Schoenaerts. Because Oak's unwavering devotion anchors the narrative, it's definitely the one to get right. Both characters are strong and stubborn, and yet the attraction is there. The actors make that tension palpable — a world of love, tenderness, hurt, rejection, respect playing out in their glances and brief conversations.

Sadly, Sheen, so brilliant as sex researcher Dr. William Masters in the smart spice of Showtime's "Masters of Sex," has little room to get into the desperation and obsession that defines Boldwood's wooing of Bathsheba. A similar fate awaits Sturridge: The actor simply isn't given enough time to stir the kind of passion that would sweep the pragmatic Bathsheba off her feet. His brooding darkness was much better used in 2012's "On the Road."

Fortunes change again with the return of that pretty farm maid Fanny Robbin. But by this point, the film, if not the crowd, has become madding in its hurry to finish up.

Between the sheer on-screen beauty and the finely wrought performances of Mulligan and Schoenaerts, "Far from the Madding Crowd" has its appeal. Yet like unrequited love, one can't help but lament what might have been.

Twitter: @BetsySharkey

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