My view on cinematic remakes has always been “’if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, but if a filmmaker has a new insight or unique thematic focus, why not try it”. Certainly this motto has worked for adaptation/remakes of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and others. Sometimes refreshing possibilities can occur with modern casting choices. Thomas Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd is a handsome remake of a finely crafted film made by John Schlesinger in 1967 which featured a cast of A-list British stars Julie Christie, Terrence Stamp, Alan Bates and Peter Finch. Vinterberg adapts the famous 1874 Thomas Hardy novel with equally impressive acting talents – Carey Mulligan, Tom Sturridge, Matthias Schoenaerts and Michael Sheen – in this passionate tale of a woman torn among three suitors.
Screenwriter David Nicholls, who previously adapted Hardy’s Tess of the D’ Urbervilles for a mini-series in 2008, skillfully trims the Hardy narrative to an economical two hours; 48 years ago Schlesinger’s adaptation ran over three hours. Set in the rural Victorian English countryside of Dorset, the story concerns the strong and independent-minded Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan). She is pursued by three men of varying qualities: the poor loyal sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Schoenaerts), a handsome but wild soldier, Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), and a wealthy, older landowner, William Boldwood (Sheen). With an almost feminist determination, Bathsheba vows to run her farm by herself and will when she sees fit choose a man to be her husband – not simply become a possession of his.
At the center of this fascinating melodrama of fated characters and crafted plot coincidences is Bathsheba, played with feminine grace and believable determination by Mulligan. Since Mulligan made her first most important screen appearance in Lone Scherfig’s An Education (2009) she’s been impressive in other small roles, like Daisy in The Great Gatsby and Jean from Inside Llewyn Davis. Her Bathsheba is yet another break through role; her character controls the screen, even in her weaker, more vulnerable moments. After all, her character is smart, appealing and even desirable to her male suitors, yet the social constructs of the time limited her options.
Where Schlesinger’s film flaunted the visual splendor of the countryside environment – the open fields, small town squares, and the dark forests, shot by then-famed cinematographer Nicholas Roeg – Vinterberg’s film is equally a feast for the eyes. Vinterberg’s regular director of photography, Charlotte Bruus Christensen, captures beautiful images of silhouetted figures against sunlit horizons, fields of farmworkers harvesting crops, and rolling hills of grazing sheep herded by loyal sheepdogs.
The only thing missing from this adaptation, and it’s been years since I read the novel, is a few of the rich backstories that flesh out the narrative and would provide more obvious motivations for some of the characters’ actions—several of which the Schlesinger film provided with its extra hour of running time. There are times when some of the more dramatic events in this new version whip by a bit too quickly. But for those new to Thomas Hardy’s work, Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd is mighty fine filmmaking.