“Far From the Madding Crowd” is the romance movie for people who don’t like romance movies.
There are no annoying “aw” moments. There are no cutesy cliches. There are no grand, sweeping gestures that cause eyes to roll.
Rather, it’s an intelligent, engrossing story told with great conviction by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, who along with Lars von Trier co-founded the “Dogme 95” movement in filmmaking, which established rules for simplifying movie production. He streamlines his storytelling for “Madding,” as well, with a simple, straightforward narrative. It needn’t be anything else.
But make no mistake. This is a romantic film. Not in a squishy or cheesy way, but beautifully, elegantly so.
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And while it may look like a stuffy period piece, it’s not.
The film is based on the classic novel by Thomas Hardy (there was a previous film adaptation in 1967 that starred Julie Christie) and takes place in Victorian England. It follows the story of Bathsheba Everdene (a mesmerizing Carey Mulligan, Oscar nominee for “An Education”), a headstrong woman in a time when women were expected to be anything but. Their jobs were to look pretty, bear children and be subservient. Bathsheba will have none of that.
And she tells that to sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (a quietly chivalrous Matthias Schoenaerts) when he asks her to marry him. She doesn’t want to be anyone’s wife.
But she certainly becomes other people’s boss when she inherits a farm. Gabriel’s too, after he loses his own farm to come humbly work on hers. We can see the hurt of him having to swallow his pride.
Later, Bathsheba also attracts the attention of a wealthy, older suitor in William Boldwood (Michael Sheen, solidly good), who makes her generous offers in exchange for marriage. Again, Bathsheba politely says no, though he doesn’t give up.
Then dashing Sgt. Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) shows up, and suddenly Bathsheba finds herself feeling the kind of emotions she’s never let herself feel before, all while Gabriel hurtfully watches from the sidelines.
The cast all around give vibrant, rich performances, though the film clearly lays on the confident shoulders of Mulligan. She embodies Bathsheba with spirit and defiance yet somehow also makes her vulnerable. Mulligan’s never been more watchable.
The men are strong, richly drawn characters, as well, and never become “types.” The actors smartly layer their characters with emotion – Schoenaerts’ with dutiful earnestness, Sheen’s with insecurity and Sturridge’s with brute arrogance.
While the film may recall the beauty of the Merchant Ivory films, it nicely lacks their stateliness. Make no mistake, there is an emotional payoff – but the film earns it respectfully in a way that will leave some breathless.
“Far From the Madding Crowd” is far from the typical romance movie.
‘Far from the Madding Crowd’
Rated: PG-13 for some sexuality and violence
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge
Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg