Far From the Madding Crowd
The first character we meet when Far From the Madding Crowd begins is Bathsheba Everdene, who notes herself that she possesses an unusual name, but that it is appropriate, given her independent personality. Bathsheba’s aunt observes that she was planning to be a governess, but that she was “too wild” to take up that job. This statement early on in the film is just one of many instances when we see just how restrictive social norms of Victorian England were for anyone unfortunate enough to be born female.
Dark shadows envelop much of Bathsheba as she rides her horse and settles it in the stable during the earliest moments of the film, in an apt visualization of the evasions that Bathsheba takes when confronted with romance. Initially, Bathsheba laments the fact that she has an education and nothing else in the world. Her only prospect of gaining any wealth is marrying and becoming her husband’s property. In a stroke of unforeseen luck, Bathsheba inherits her uncle’s farm, and is thrust into the roles of businesswoman, manager, and farmer. Three men jostle for Bathsheba’s affection and hand in marriage: middle-aged William Boldwood offers stable dullness, Gabriel Oak is honest and feisty, and Francis Troy exudes hedonistic passion while hiding a secret love that is still burning inside of him. The three representations of masculinity, social class, and Freudian personality are fascinating to watch, and sometimes end up more complex and interesting than Bathsheba, who can be flat and too opaque for viewers to relate to. She is a strong woman we can admire for persevering in an unfair world dominated by men, but she is not much else. That means that whether Bathsheba makes good or bad decisions, we have trouble seeing the logic for her actions.
Perhaps people who have read the book would understand better, but it is baffling how Bathsheba, previously so stolid and self-reliant, would suddenly fall for a shady lout she just met. As the movie progresses, Bathsheba proves to be her own worst enemy, and her mistakes are as equally harmful to herself as the gossip and traditions that ridicule and attack for being a woman. Tom Sturridge’s portrayal of the reckless and possibly insane Francis Troy results in a villain we can easily hate, but not one that we love to hate, and he is a forgettable antagonist who sometimes evokes grim sympathy and sometimes evokes pure disgust. The most admirable star is Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who as Gabriel Oak can amazingly display any emotion and is an instantly charming screen presence.
It isn’t just because Gabriel appears first that he is the most ideal partner for Bathsheba. Notwithstanding a clumsy and unintentionally comical marriage proposal he makes to Bathsheba, Gabriel is the only man who, from the start, respects her as an equal and takes her seriously in a misogynistic society. He mocks and flirts with her, and matches her in humor and solemnity, but both of them are fearful of the vicious power of gossip and societal disapproval that will attack their coupling.
As is typical of many of Thomas Vinterberg’s movies, Far From the Madding Crowd is gorgeous in every moment. Sweeping shots of misty forests, roaring oceans, and golden wheat fields paint in astonishing detail the English countryside as a land of bounty and despair. Plenty of care is taken into the clothes and the residences of the characters, making this a relative of Downton Abbey that devotes much more focus to the working class than the nobility. With incredible resolution, the camera picks up things as minute as fabric lines on top hats, and the tiny details go a long way towards immersing viewers in each scene. Every detail of a good period drama can be found in spades in this movie.
The vicissitudes of being a woman under Victorian morality receive ample exploration, but just a few days after watching the movie, I am already beginning to forget most of the movie’s details. The film tries so hard to show Bathsheba as full of single-minded determination that we never learn much about her personality, quirks, childhood, or anything that would make her an interesting person. What ultimately makes the film plodding is that the scenery is a more prominent character than the people who inhabit it. One learns more about the story and the shifting moods by looking at the colors of the outfits and the weather than from the faces and words spoken by the characters. A character who was presumed dead suddenly returns, and is promptly eliminated by another character. This hasty method of resolving the love square makes the inevitable relationship upgrade even more inevitable, but the feeling of happiness at seeing this union is surprisingly weak.
Even for people unfamiliar with the novel, the level of suspense never reaches a terribly high level, and while it deals with love and passion, Far From the Madding Crowd is likely to leave many viewers cold. It is more successful as a tourism commercial for Dorset rather than an examination of the inner thoughts and feelings of a woman struggling to be independent in the Victorian era.