How do you solve a problem like Bathsheba?
That's the conundrum for director Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration) and his leading lady, Carey Mulligan, in Far from the Madding Crowd, a handsome pastoral romance based on the book by Thomas Hardy.
Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdene, an independent young woman who inherits a manor and farm in Victorian England circa 1874. You know she's going to have a complicated life, saddled with a name like that. Bathsheba quickly finds herself mired in drama—and melodrama—as she tries to run the farm while fending off three tenacious suitors.
Her first admirer is the handsome and brawny shepherd Gabriel Oak, played by Danish actor Matthias Schoenaerts. Gabriel is strong and true, but a reversal of fortune renders the match unlikely, and we're reminded how rigid class distinctions were in Victorian England.
Suitor number two is the ace British actor Michael Sheen, who plays Bathsheba's wealthy neighbor, William Boldwood (what great names this story has)—gallant, but a bit of a stiff. In third position is the dashing soldier Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge), a classic rake with an air of danger and a ridiculous mustache.
As a literary creation, Bathsheba has always been a tough nut to crack. She's introduced as a strong, almost proto-feminist character: "I shouldn't mind being a bride at a wedding if I didn't have to take a husband," she tells Gabriel. But then she makes a series of tremendously dubious decisions that result in the goofball soldier becoming master of the house.
Vinterberg largely resolves the issue in a critical early scene—a secret rendezvous in the woods where the roguish Troy awakens Bathsheba's repressed Victorian sexuality with some strategic caresses. She's beguiled. It happens.
Mulligan delivers a lovely, layered performance, expressing Bathsheba's complex contradictions by deploying all of the tools of the screen actor's trade. Sheen is amazing, too—their scenes together should be savored. It's glorious to watch performers work at this level.
The film's other great performance comes from cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who treats light like a powdery tactile material. Her English countryside is a place of piercing greens, bruised clouds and buttery sunrises.
Far from the Madding Crowd is an old-fashioned movie-going pleasure, the kind of film we just don't get that often anymore. My mom—a Scottish immigrant and dedicated lover of old moors-and-manors stories via Hollywood—used to call them "weepies." She would have adored this movie, and massacred a whole box of tissues.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A tale of two Thomases."