Thomas Vinterberg directs Far from the Madding Crowd, his film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel of the same name. Set in 19th century Victorian England, the film centers on the friendship of sheep farmer Gabriel Oak, played by Matthew Shoenaerts, and the headstrong farmer Bathsheba Everdene played by Carey Mulligan. Mr. Oak (as Bathsheba calls him) trusts that his and Bathsheba’s friendship has matured and his economic station is firmly established. When he gathers some courage, he asks her to marry him. She politely declines, offering the excuse that she has no interest in marrying him nor any man. As fate would have it, however, each character’s fortune twists in ways that neither could have anticipated. Mr. Oak’s fortunes turn for the worse. His sheep dog drives all of his herd over the cliff and, thus, he has to give up his farm and seek work with Bathsheba, who, by contrast has inherited a vast acreage of farm land plus a mansion. She attracts three suitors: Sgt. Francis Troy, played by Tom Sturridge; William Boldwood, a monied landowner played by Michael Sheen; and, of course Mr. Oak. His admiration of and devotion to Bathsheba never wavers; and he admirably measures his feelings when asked by Bathsheba for his counsel on matters of the farm and the heart, even though some consultations are strained and do not work in his favor.
Charlotte Christensen’s cinematography is Oscar worthy. Her panoramic photographs will lull you to sleep as she sweeps across the English countryside. Her depth of field portray the expanse of the land; her character close-ups pull you into the intimacies of moment. You will feel the isolation from the madding crowd and you will sense the urgency of the management of the farm and people through her lens.
The performances by Shoenaerts and Mulligan make for stalwart bookends to Vinterberg’s project. Mulligan shines as she produces a very independent Bathsheba but is sure not to overplay her character’s strong will. Yes, she is financially independent; yes, she is a good manager of people and land. Yet Mulligan has her character recognize people and situations that she cannot control while still maintaining her self-respect AND her money.
Throughout ill-fortune and economic gain; nature’s wrath and smile on the land; and, love, marriage, and even murder, Mr. Oak remains as sturdy as his name implies. When he falls into financial ruin, Shoenaerts plays him as a dispirited yet confident sheep herder who, no matter the trial, has a healthy investment in his own worth. When Bathsheba sometimes acts out in arrogance, he dismisses her disrespect; one time he quits the farm rather to be subjected to Bathsheba’s unwarranted whims. No, he is not a man for whom to feel sorry; rather, Mr. Oak is so confident in his farming skills that he believes another place of employment awaits him without question no matter the circumstances. By the same token, Shoenaerts’s Mr. Oak carefully minds his station in the full realization that being gainfully employed brings about comfort in economic stability–not to mention self-satisfaction.
Far from the Madding Crowd is a well-orchestrated film that not only illustrates the intensity of love and desire; in addition, film director Vinterberg and cinematographer Christensen have delivered the beauty of the work ethic. We are given scenes of farmhands tilling the soil and loving it! We see those who work with their hands relish their work, and celebrate a good crop with a good drink and a song. Those were the times …
Far from the Madding Crowd plays through June 25 at The Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center.
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