Lawrence Toppman

‘Madding Crowd’ looks great but feels lightweight

Still of Matthias Schoenaerts and Carey Mulligan in Far from the Madding Crowd
Still of Matthias Schoenaerts and Carey Mulligan in Far from the Madding Crowd Fox Searchlight

Sometimes seeing a movie throws the source material into sharper relief. When I read Thomas Hardy’s first successful novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd,” it seemed to be a story about traditional roles in the English class system and the thwarted efforts of a stubborn woman to live without a man in the mid-19th century.

Watching the textually faithful film adaptation by director Thomas Vinterberg and writer David Nicholls, though, the piece comes off more as a glossy, well-acted romance novel.

Strong, single Bathsheba Everdeen must choose among three men: stalwart, soft-spoken hunk Gabriel Oak; Boldwood, the rich, older neighbor who wants to protect her but take away her independence; and Frank Troy, the sexy, shallow soldier who can’t be trusted to stand by her. This cross between Danielle Steel and Masterpiece Theatre will find its audience (and should), yet something’s missing.

Vinterberg is on home territory. The Danish director’s three best-known films – “The Celebration,” “Dear Wendy” and “The Hunt” – are about people who challenge social conventions and get punished, and about betrayals large and small. Nicholls knows his way around Hardy’s mythical Wessex (here called Dorset, its real name); he adapted “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” for a BBC miniseries in 2008.

They’ve made curious changes to the story. Haughty landowner Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) has become impish and impetuous, perhaps to make us like her more. She now has a teenaged companion (Jessica Barden) she instructs in the art of running a farm, an unneeded protofeminist gesture.

She no longer saves the life of gentle Gabriel (Matthias Schoenaerts), which explains his long devotion; he simply loves her almost at once. Boldwood (Michael Sheen) remains the same, a coiled spring of anxiety. But Frank (Tom Sturridge) no longer lies and womanizes chronically; he’s just a guy who makes bad choices, and the role is cut so much that he becomes a nuisance, rather than a threat to village stability.

Technically, the film never falters. Charlotte Bruus Christensen, one of the few female cinematographers to make features, provides a variety of views for the sometimes bleak, sometimes inviting countryside. Craig Armstrong composed memorable themes that alternate from romantic to rustic.

Perhaps Mulligan couldn’t play Hardy’s Bathsheba, named for the Old Testament woman who had an adulterous affair with King David – another example of a woman nearly undone when a powerful man wouldn’t let her alone – but she plays Vinterberg’s version perfectly.

Sheen has a gravity Americans have seldom seen in him, Sturridge does what he can with an undernourished part, and Belgian actor Schoenaerts (who tries to pass for English by speaking in a growly monotone) embodies the well-named Oak. He’s quiet, unshakeable and durable, the closest thing in this project to Hardy’s intentions.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

REVIEW

‘Far From the Madding Crowd’

A woman in rural 1870 England has three suitors from whom to choose, as she tries to manage a large farm.

B- STARS: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge.

DIRECTOR: Thomas Vinterberg.

RUNNING TIME: 119 minutes.

RATING: PG-13 (some sexuality and violence).

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