Review: Far From The Madding Crowd Is One Of The Best Lady-Led Films Of The Year
And a wonderful Victorian-era film, too.
With the arrival of box-office smashers Furious 7 and Avengers: Age of Ultron, summer movies are in full swing, and we’ll be getting a movie a week until we’re all hot and sweaty at the end of August. That makes finding a few alternatives worth the price of admission a challenge, especially with the current rise of small scale movies hitting VOD before they are even in theaters. But the challenge is worth taking on, and this summer’s first refreshing alternative to the summer popcorn films is the refreshingly entertaining Far from the Madding Crowd, a movie of stunning beauty, surprising humor, and one of the best female leads of the year.
I don’t mean to rise expectations too high, but I can honestly say Far From the Madding Crowd might be the best performance I’ve seen from Carey Mulligan, which is saying a lot because she is often a highlight in movies. As Victorian-era Bathsheba Everdene (yeah, that’s her name, Hunger Games fans), Mulligan plays a young woman who inherits an estate and farm, but resists marriage. Bathsheba is a rich and fascinating character for Mulligan to take on, and she fleshes her out into a woman who is both unusual in her times, and very easy to relate to. She takes the opportunity to be independent with the cocky delight of a teenager who knows she’s being a little rebellious but possesses the intelligence to succeed – and the worldliness to understand this is an opportunity most women are not given. The only reason she has been given this chance is because of her family’s acceptance of her as an independent woman whom they can’t expect to settle into marriage.
Mulligan and director Thomas Vinterberg (and writer David Nicholls) also resist overselling the fact that she’s unusual for her independent in her time. Rather, she simply delights of that knowledge, smiling at the idea of being unusual, and then moves on to prove her abilities not as a woman, but as a land owner, celebrating every accomplishment with a sly smile. That delight is what makes her such an enchanting heroine that would catch the eyes of three men. And none of the men are turned off by her independence; in fact, they seem turned on, but they just don’t know how marriage fits into the life of a woman who doesn’t “need” marriage. She isn’t a Jane Austin heroine, who fears being destitute without a husband, or a woman who fears becoming a “spinster.” She needs nothing, and therefore has to look at these men asking for her hand and ask “why?”
These three different men each arriving wanting and expecting different things from marriage to Bathsheba. Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays shepherd Gabriel, wants to marry before she comes into money, promising a stable life and family but seems to never consider romance or love a necessary aspect of marriage. Michael Sheen’s William is wealthy and promises a life of ease and leisure, but again, doesn’t seem to be in love with her… or if he is, he doesn’t care if she loves him in return. And then there is Tom Sturridge, the dashing officer who promises love and sex, but nothing stable. All three actors are very good at playing their role – although I now hate Sturridge, so good job sir.
Despite being based on a classic novel and being the forth feature film based on it, the reason Madding Crowd really stands out is that it never feels stuffy or pretentious. It is an unbelievably refreshingly, breezy piece of melodrama, and much funnier than you might expect from a Thomas Hardy adaptation. Screenwriter David Nicholls takes delight in highlighting the real conventions of a time when marriage was a business arrangement, and Mulligan reaction to such ideas are genuinely funny. Also, because it focuses on a woman with the liberty to question these ideas openly, and whose life is never dependent on men or marriage (unlike Juno Temple’s character Fanny who plays the tragic woman without options) Nicholls has the opportunity to really examine modern marriage and the difference between attraction and love.
I can’t stress how purely entertaining this “period” drama is. The music is beautiful, and the costumes and cinematography as eye popping as any CG movie (I want Mulligan’s riding pants and jacket). And the movie moves along at a wonderfully brisk pace, so that despite being two hours long, it never felt very long. Director Thomas Vinterberg has respect for the material, but never props it up as something the audience needs to respect or as a piece of education. And Mulligan’s performance is the kind of joyful, warm and expressive piece of character work which makes you completely understand why these men are so attracted to her. Who wouldn’t fall in love with her?
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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