A mostly British cast, a Danish director and a classic novel by Thomas Hardy form the winning ingredients in “Far From the Madding Crowd.”
As adaptations of literary classics go, director Thomas Vinterberg’s and screenwriter David Nicholls’ interpretation of Hardy’s Victorian drama is a fine one. It’s beautifully acted, grandly romantic cinema that nevertheless doesn’t lose touch with the Earth.
Vinterberg chose to shoot the film in Dorset, the same southwestern English countryside that inspired Hardy. Like great period pieces do, “Far From the Madding Crowd,” with its rural landscapes and Victorian sets (both grand and humble), transports an audience to the time and place in which the story’s characters meet their fates.
As authentic as the film plays, its storytelling and performances are so vital that the action feels timeless. Men and women haven’t stopped making poor choices and tragic mistakes.
Carey Mulligan plays the film’s heroine, Bathsheba Everdene. An exceptional young woman of the 1870s, Bathsheba looks contemptuously upon girls and young women who let themselves be ruled by the first good-looking young men who turn their way.
Bathsheba, her aunt explains to Gabriel Oak, a neighboring farmer, “was going to be a governess, but she was far too wild.”
True to form, Oak gets his first glimpse of the wild country girl as she’s riding a horse through the countryside.
Mulligan projects Bathsheba as impish, happy, full of life. She has no thoughts of marriage. But seemingly just days or maybe hours after Gabriel spots Bathsheba in the woods, he makes an earnest proposal of marriage.
“Mr. Oaks, there are things to consider,” she cautions.
Gabriel’s offer, excellent for the time, comes with 100 acres and 200 sheep. In a year or two, he’ll buy a piano for her, he adds, pledging he’ll always be there for her.
“I am too independent for you,” Bathsheba says. “You’ll grow to despise me.”
Despite Gabriel’s intention to go his own way, he and Bathsheba meet again. Their chaste relationship and undeniable connection are always simmering at the edge of boiling.
Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts (“The Drop,” “Rust and Bone”) co-stars as Gabriel, Bathsheba’s first suitor. Neither naïve nor sentimental, Schoenaerts’ soulful Gabriel has unassailable goodness in him. He’s passionate, too, but strong enough to withstand Bathsheba’s rejection. Gabriel never explicitly shows the disappointment he must be feeling.
The film’s deep cast continues with Bathsheba’s additional suitors, both of them quite unlike Gabriel. William Boldwood is Bathsheba’s wealthy, middle-aged bachelor neighbor. Initially too formal and aloof to engage her in conversation, he soon courts her as well. For Bathsheba, a union with Boldwood would for practicality’s sake only. Michael Sheen portrays Boldwood, going to devastating emotional places as an unfortunate man who’s a prince in the material world but a pauper in love.
Tom Sturridge plays suitor No. 3, the dashing Sgt. Frank Troy. As reckless as he is handsome, he’s exactly the sort of handsome young man Bathsheba knocks girls and young women for swooning over.
Deeper into the cast, the at-first blissfully happy Juno Temple (“Killer Joe,” “Maleficent,” “The Dark Knight Rises”) brings the film some of its tragedy through her role as Troy’s bride-to-be.
Vinterberg, a Danish director helming his third English-language film, tells an insistently engaging story with “Far From the Madding Crowd.” He and the splendid work by his actors, especially Mulligan, Schoenaerts and Sheen, insure that the film takes its characters on an epic romantic journey. Masterpiece isn’t too strong a word.