Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, as depicted in Thomas Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd, is a place of order and precision, interlinked networks of tract farms carrying out routine tasks based on a clockwork seasonal calendar, its traditions stretching back hazily into history. Yet the thrust of this story concerns a different sort of inevitability: of the winds of chance blowing through any and all circumstances, disrupting well-laid plans and wicked schemes alike. As in 1998’s The Celebration, and Vinterberg’s recent The Hunt, this is a parable about the chaos which lurks in the most circumscribed of circumstances, with vulnerable characters at the mercy of both their own natures and random twists of fate, their fraught helplessness contrasted by the impassively gorgeous landscapes which surround them.
Elevated in station and circumstances after coming into a large inheritance, Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) takes over her uncle’s 100-acre farm, a once proud estate which has fallen into disrepair. Here she comes into contact with a series of suitors, first among them Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), from whom she’s already rejected one marriage proposal, and whose situations are reversed now that he’s lost a farm and she’s gained one. Also involved are middle-aged bachelor and neighboring landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a lonely man who proves to be more than a bit obsessive, and impetuous army officer Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), whose dashing façade masks a corrupt and licentious nature.
Each man is attractive to the staunchly independent Everdene, but also lacking in some serious way; she’s savvy enough to realize this, but still can’t help but get entangled. At times, the film appears ready to spin this abundance of choices into a study of the economics of desire, with Everdene weighing each potential affiliation by considering what value it might have to a woman whose security is already assured. But as in the The Hunt, which abandoned its apparent critique of buried male aggression for mopey miserablism, the film only lingers at the fringes of its interesting conceit. Instead of advancing character psychology or digging into the thorny nature of these relationships, Vinterberg’s bland direction obsesses over pretty portraiture. The results are therefore handsome but subtextually thin, and the lack of real analysis or consideration leaves this perilously close to a Goldilocks-style depiction of privileged female indecision, not much of an improvement on John Schlesinger’s 1967 version, which was more dynamically and colorfully crafted.
Hardy’s novel, like many of his countryside parables, intends to point fingers at a restrictive society whose rules leave regular people stifled; his heroine has surmounted one stumbling block by gaining property, but remains stymied by a thick web of convention, embroiled in an overwrought situation which could easily be solved by some casual dating. Bathsheba claims in her first lines of dialogue not to know the provenance of her name, but the choice of titling a protagonist after the nude-sunbathing mistress who brought on King David’s ruin remains a significant detail, and it’s difficult to tell this story without delving into the intricate sexual complexities it raises. Approaching the material without an eye for what it might have to say about today’s society, Far from the Madding Crowd loses the novel’s original subversiveness in favor of frothier details: charging strings layered over horseback rides straddling seaside cliffs, fiery sunsets, and heaving storms. This fixation on dreamy fluff elements diminishes the film’s potential, transforming it into a high-flown tale of complicated romance rather than an incisive social critique.