I claim absolutely no familiarity with the story of Far from the Madding Crowd. Regrettably, I’ve fallen a little behind on my 19th-century literature. I only know from the trailer and a brief Wikipedia search that this is the story of a woman who’s being courted by three good-looking men at the same time, and fuck if that doesn’t sound like a contrived and boring setup for a costume drama. I mean, love triangles are all well and good, but how many love interests can a protagonist line up before we lose all sympathy for her?
Still, the critical reception for this one has been good so far, and I guess there must be a reason why this story has been such an enduring classic with multiple adaptations throughout the past century. Moreover, the cast looks amazing, and I’m intrigued by director Thomas Vinterburg and his long working history with one Lars von Trier. Last but not least, it’s the summer movie season. I love Mad Max and Avengers as much as the next guy, but this seems like a good time to slow down for a moment and try out a costume drama for a change.
Anyway, our protagonist for today is Bathsheba Everdene, played by veteran costume drama actress Carey Mulligan. Her parents died when she was very young, so not even Bathsheba knows why she got stuck with such a stupid name. Anyway, she grows up a poor orphan until her uncle suddenly dies, leaving his farm and the rest of his estate to her.
Our first love interest is Gabriel Oak, played by future veteran costume drama heartthrob (see: the upcoming A Little Chaos) Matthias Schoenartes. He’s a lowly shepherd who first met Bathsheba when they worked on neighboring farms. She turns down his proposal for marriage shortly before going to her new farm, where he resurfaces as her new employee (it’s a long story).
Second is William Boldwood, played by Michael Sheen. He’s a wealthy older man running the estate next door to the Everdene farm. He’s also madly in love with Bathsheba even though it’s obvious he’d have no idea what to do with her.
Then we have Sergeant Frank Troy, played by Tom Sturridge. He’s a dashing and handsome young soldier who seduces our female lead, but he later turns out to be a drunken and abusive shithead who inadvertently leads Batsheba close to financial ruin. Juno Temple also gets a role as Frank’s former love and current mistress.
So let’s recap. We’ve got 1) a strong-willed and independent woman struggling against gender expectations of the time, who is 2) forced to choose between marrying for love and money, because 3) her one true love is dirt poor and far below her station, and the alternative is 4) a socially acceptable yet passionless marriage to a wealthy man. And her other alternative is 5) a handsome and daring young man who leads our protagonist to long-term ruin after a fiery short-term love affair.
That’s a lot of costume drama cliches packed into two hours’ running time. And therein lies the problem.
Pacing is absolutely critical for romance movies. We need to know the characters and we need to have a full understanding of what attracts them to each other, and that takes time. Unfortunately, compressing so much plot into so little time means that things get rushed. This is how we get cardboard characters who suddenly fall in love with each other for no reason, which hardly makes for a compelling love story. For a film with one romance arc, this would spell disaster. For a film with three romance arcs, the whole story collapses into an ugly heap under its own weight.
For example, Bathsheba goes through the first hour telling her suitors in no uncertain terms that she is extremely picky about who she’s going to marry. Then Frank enters the picture, and she marries the guy in a heartbeat. It’s absolute bullshit, clearly motivated by the necessity of cramming in too much plot. What makes it worse is that Bathsheba is a genuinely interesting character with a good head on her shoulders. She wants to assert herself as a woman in a man’s world, and that struggle comes through in relevant and relateable ways. What’s more, because Bathsheba came into money after a life of poverty, she can maneuver between the socioeconomic strata with uncommon ease.
But then Bathsheba has to make decisions about her love life, deciding to accept or decline marriage proposals, and every choice has been set up with so little tension that I could barely give a fuck either way.
Frank and Boldwood are even worse cases in point. If I squint hard enough, I can see the potentially deep and sympathetic men that these characters might have been. But because their storylines have to compete for screentime with everything else going on, there’s no time to establish either of them as anything more than two-dimensional cutouts. Gabriel is the exception, since he’s right there at Bathsheba’s side from start to finish, but even he’s stuck with a marriage proposal that lands with a wet thud. The characters only get six minutes of screen time together before he pops the question the first time, and they have so little chemistry by then that the moment flat doesn’t work. But then the ending comes, and after seeing these two grow together through all the misfortunes and failed courtings of this story, we’re just left wondering why they didn’t get together sooner.
But then we have the supporting cast. Juno Temple and Jessica Barden (playing Liddy, Bathsheba’s personal assistant) are emblematic of the cast as a whole. Both of these women were given practically nothing to work with, yet they still somehow manage to leave an impression. I absolutely fucking despised Jessica Barden with a fiery passion after that ungodly abomination she played in Tamara Drewe (though she was admittedly much better in Hanna), but I have to say she somehow won me over with this film. As for Juno Temple, she really plays a plot device more than an actual character, but damn if she didn’t make it work.
It really is the cast that saves this movie. The camerawork is pedestrian, the score is unremarkable, the pacing is spotty, and the editing is questionable in spots, but every single actor brings their A-game to this picture. And when actors like Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen step up to knock it out of the park, who wouldn’t want to see that?
Far from the Madding Crowd isn’t necessarily a bad costume drama, it’s just three or four costume dramas stuck together. Two hours is simply not enough time for three separate love stories to get the coverage they need and deserve. The acting is stellar and everything else is okay, but that’s part of the problem: It’s just okay.
The movie is in such a rush that it merely ticks off all the necessary genre cliches without doing any of them particularly well or adding anything new. That doesn’t make it a bad film, but that does make it hard to recommend for anything more than a rental. It’s tough for me to suggest seeking this one out when you could get more entertainment out of most Oscar-bait period dramas or Shakespeare adaptations.