Director: Thomas Vinterberg (2015)
Passion, obsession and betrayal burst from every frame of this compelling, fresh and faithful adaption of Thomas Hardy‘s classic Victorian novel.
His rustic romance of a headstrong heiress and her three wildly different suitors is powered by a first-rate cast on their best form. Carey Mulligan is captivating as Bathsheba Everdene, famously played by Julie Christie in the 1967 version.
The orchestral score swells over the green and pleasant land of a production rich in period detail. The handsome locations are shot on film – not digitally – in the county of Dorset (Wessex) where the book was set. This beds the story deep in historical and local context.
In an economical piece of character sketching, we first meet the beautiful, intelligent and impulsive Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) riding freely on horseback. She is seen by the good shephard Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is diligently watching his flock. She is sporting a sleek, red riding-jacket, he is dressed in practical working clothes.
Valuing her independence above all else, Bathsheba is saved from an uncertain future when she inherits her uncle’s farm and determines to restore it to it’s once prosperous profitability.
Bathsheba is a political beast who doles out praise and punishments to her workers in public, she not only helps on the farm but is careful to be seen to be helping out on the farm.
She’s aided and abetted by her servant Liddy (Jessica Barden) who’s a useful source of village gossip and accompanies Bathsheba in making merry mischief.
As circumstances turn darker so Liddy slips from the frame. This is a shame as they share a sweet and believable friendship and it offers Bathsheba an extra dimension, preventing her from being defined by her relationship with men.
Bathsheba recognises men are attracted to her but sees it as a trap with no value – until she struggles in the man’s world of business. At the local market she’s reduced using her charm to encourage the local merchants to at least try her merchandise.
Farming life is a wild meadow of activity. As well as harvests, sheep dips and recruitment fairs, there’s bare-knuckle boxing, swordplay, gambling, storms, fires, madness and the tragic death of an infant.
The plot revolves around the ill-considered sending of a valentines card. When she is kissed for the first time Bathsheba is shocked by the strength of her own reaction. It derails her social sure-footedness and leads to choices which shreds her independence and happiness.
Bathsheba receives three propose; from the honest shepherd Gabriel, swaggering soldier Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge) and the emotionally fragile landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). She sings a duet with one, rides tandem with another and marries a third.
Though the script sensibly streamlines the novel, it remains emotionally articulate and frequently funny. The focus is so tight on Bathsheba, outside of her suitors and Liddy, there’s barely another character who has a speaking role of note.
This is the weakness of the film as we’d like to spend longer here, perhaps wander around the countryside and meet a few more of the interesting looking characters who populate the village.
As the tone grows darker and the story more violent, the assured pacing of Danish director Vinterberg delivers dramatic action which is always underpinned by strong character motivation.
At quieter moments he is able to capture the nuance of social status, such as when characters wordlessly shift seats around a dinner table to accommodate an unexpected, superior guest.
Although unquestionably a fine and suitably physical actor with the requisite intelligence and stillness of purpose, it’s curious to cast the Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts in a role who embodies what Hardy saw as the great virtues of the English.
Michael Sheen demonstrates his tremendous ability to suggest torrents of inner turmoil with a bare twitch of the mouth. As Boldwood struggles for the correct words, his quiet pleading is magnificently crafted from tight smiles and difficult pauses.
It has echoes of Prince Charles questioning the meaning of love when announcing his engagement to the considerable younger Diana Spencer.
The remarkable Carey Mulligan gives a rich and nuanced performance of acute emotional resonance. Her doe eyes convey Bathsheba’s vulnerability, strength and desire as well as her growing self-awareness and changing values.
Mulligan may not win next year’s best actress Oscar or even make the final cut, but she’s the early high-score on the leader board.
It’s easy to fathom why the men fall for Bathsheba, it’s more of a wonder why more men don’t.