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Film review: Carey Mulligan dazzles in Far from the Madding Crowd

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Category: IIA

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2015, 10:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2015, 10:31pm

At a moment when even action fantasies are subjected to avid feminist analysis (cheers to Mad Max: Fury Road and boos to Jurassic World), it might be time to spare a thought for Far from the Madding Crowd. A salient statement of female empowerment despite its antiquity, Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel has been awaiting a mainstream revival since John Schlesinger's 1967 adaptation.

Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, a pioneering mind whose early success, Festen (1998), is the antithesis of this new movie's sumptuous cinematography and period setting, has arguably never found his mojo with English-language filmmaking. Until now, that is.

But if the breakthrough of a maverick European director means nothing to you, consider the novel's influence: Hardy's proto-feminist heroine's surname — and her ability to think outside the box inhabited by her contemporaries — was shared (if not spelled the same way) by Katniss Everdeen, the revolutionary leader in The Hunger Games series.

When compared to Katniss, who partakes in straightforward endeavours such as overturning a totalitarian regime, Bathsheba Everdene (played by a feisty Carey Mulligan) has a more complicated task at hand: which of her three admirers should this late-Victorian woman choose to marry when tying the knot makes little sense to the free spirit in her?

Everdene meets and rejects the first, the humble sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts), before fate dictates that she inherit a large fortune and he lose his herd. After Oak ends up holding the torch as an employee at the lady's new farm, he watches two more suitors ask for her hand: the mature landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and the volatile Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge).

The brooding film plays like a fragmented reverie as Everdene keeps the watchful Oak at a distance, plays reckless games with the lonely Boldwood's emotions and flirts with disaster in her liaisons with Troy, who is still smarting over a failed wedding with his farmhand fiancée.

Holding our attention to it all is Mulligan, who nails the internal conflicts between Everdene's doe-eyed vulnerability and unflinching belief in her decisions. (The male actors, by comparison, are clumsier fits.) As she dispatches her admirers with consummate efficiency, the brisk pacing of Vinterberg's film — breezing past marriage proposals and heart-breaking confessions — has made her something of a practical tease.

Although screenwriter David Nicholls' seriously rushed, trimmed and modified adaptation has created large discrepancies with the book, this ultimately remains a strangely engrossing film that should send quite a few people back to Hardy's far more sweeping classic.

Far from the Madding Crowd opens on June 25