It’s always interesting how people in a different time can react to something. During his lifetime, author Thomas Hardy was criticized for the way he treated his female protagonists – mainly in the way he seemed opposed to allowing them to be happy in marriage. Viewed through a modern lens, Hardy’s depictions of women fit. That includes Bathsheba Everdene, the heroine of Far from the Madding Crowd who craves her independence the way men crave her.
For the 2015 adaptation of the story (the fourth adaptation for film or television in all), the narrative of the story is reconfigured to put Bathsheba in its center. The story opens with Bathsheba, at this point a young woman of no notable means, catching the eye of the sheep farmer next door, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). When Gabriel proposes to her, though, Bathsheba gently declines, stating she has no want for a husband. A reversal of fortune finds Bathsheba with a substantial inheritance, while Gabriel loses his entire flock; Gabriel ends up in Bathsheba’s employ. Bathsheba, meanwhile, finds herself being courted by both a wealthy, older farmer named William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who fails to interest her romantically, and the dashing Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge), whose ability to make her quiver betrays his love of one of Bathsheba’s former servants, Fanny Robin (Juno Temple). With all the characters in play, the stage is set for weddings, murders, assumed deaths, and other staples of classic literature.
The original novel, which was first published in serialized form, gave roughly equal focus to each of the five characters mentioned above. In condensing the story into a two hour film, the dynamics change; Fanny, in particular, is reduced to little more than a cameo. The changes mostly work, though the pacing does jump at times. As director, Thomas Vinterberg mostly lets the story flow calmly. One notable exception is a scene where Troy woos Bathsheba with his swordplay, repeatedly bringing his allegedly dull blade dangerously close to her body before revealing the true sharpness of the blade. It’s a showy scene, with cuts as precise as Troy’s thrusts. Bathsheba seems on the verge of an orgasm at the end of the scene, and it’s it’s easy to see why.
The scene – and the film at large – are also aided by Carey Mulligan’s performance. In Mulligan’s hands, Bathsheba is unquestionably self-possessed. It’s clear why she doesn’t feel the need for a husband; for the vast majority of the film, it’s clear she doesn’t need anyone at all. It makes her sudden reversal on love and marriage hit all the harder, as it creates a tragic domino effect for all of the characters; it doesn’t feel out of place, or like Bathsheba is finally acknowledging desires she long kept at bay. It’s more like a previously unexplored option. It does, however, make the ending of the film feel unconvincing, even though it stays true to Hardy’s original ending. Still, it’s great to see a period piece so captivated by its heroine, not even the “happily ever after” ending can spoil it.