A fierce spirit ahead of her Victorian time, vacillating between love, sex and business in choosing a partner to run the farm she refuses to see go under, Far From the Madding Crowd's Bathsheba Everdene is also a woman for the ages and therefore amenable to endless re-imagining, up to and including Katniss Everdeen. All in white and gamboling through green meadows with adorable lambs and a very hot Alan Bates, Julie Christie made an unforgettable Bathsheba in John Schlesinger's 1967 steamed-up adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1874 pastoral novel.
It was probably a smart move on Danish director Thomas Vinterberg's part to draw a line under the intense Christie and cast an actress as different from her as chalk is from cheese in his handsome, slightly inert new adaptation of Hardy's novel. I'm just not persuaded that the accomplished Carey Mulligan was the right choice to play a tragic heroine undone by gusting carnal passion. Mulligan's controlled minimalism was exactly right for the enervated Daisy in The Great Gatsby, but she's not built to play a woman perpetually on the verge. Christie's Bathsheba was lush and lusty and walking wounded, an open book of a woman. Pert, contained and cerebral, Mulligan cedes not an inch to the animal nature that allows the otherwise sophisticated Bathsheba to bloom in rural life. Mulligan's Bathsheba looks and sounds like a Chelsea girl let loose among yokels, even when she rolls up her sleeves and gets down in the sheep dip with her manager, the hunk (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenarts).
Though lacking the requisite Dorset twang, Schoenarts, last seen lugging Marion Cotillard on his back in Rust and Bone, makes a decent Gabriel, with a welcome side of bedroom eyes. Gabriel and Bathsheba share a rabid work ethic and a Hardy-esque love of the land, but being of the yokel class, Gabriel can't compete as spouse material with gentleman farmer William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). And neither man is a match for Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), a Wickham-ish rascal who shows up like a bad penny wherever there's ale on tap and money to be made without working. A few swishes of the attractively uniformed soldier's sword around her braid, and Bathsheba's a goner, even once she learns that the rat is otherwise engaged to Juno Temple.
As shot by Charlotte Bruuson Christenson, Far From the Madding Crowd has a ravishing feel for the windswept beauty and unpredictable weather of England's West Country. But Vinterberg, who made The Celebration and The Hunt, is also a compulsive underliner who sends a whole flock of sheep over a cliff and treats himself to a Freudian abundance of scything, swording and knife-sharpening among males of varying degrees of alpha, while off to the side the women go into more decorous rue-and-regret mode. There's too much exposition in David Nicholls' script, and while it's possible that many moviegoers today have never read Hardy, the story pretty much tells itself without Bathsheba's coquettish admonition — "I'm too independent for you" — to one of her suitors. Trust me, he noticed.
Far From the Madding Crowd is a melodrama; we're meant to lose ourselves in its extravagances. Yet for all its lavish visuals, the movie feels emotionally attenuated. It doesn't help that the most fully realized man in the trio chasing Bathsheba is Boldwood, intelligently played by Sheen as a dull, conventional man undone by a brief, profoundly uncharacteristic burst of passion. As for Mulligan, she's too nerveless and composed, too much in charge of herself to play a woman driven mad by the confining mores of her time, and by romantic choices whose parameters have been set in the world of men. Given her circumstances Bathsheba has always seemed to me a fully tragic figure in search of an opera. So it's not Vinterberg's fault, or Mulligan's, that in every incarnation from Hardy onward, the poor woman merits nothing grander than a tacked-on happy ending.