The great strength of British films adapted from classic literature or newly minted British productions set in the past such as “Downton Abby” has been their innate ability to guide us through such foreign lands with their curious customs and highly structured societies.
Now we can luxuriate once more in the “foreignness” of Thomas Hardy’s fourth and most successful novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd,” published in 1874. This is a country, for instance, where women have little say in the trajectory of their lives and no means to put intelligence or education to any productive use.
Yet Hardy imagined a heroine who would deny her country’s strictures and fought every day to claim what was rightfully hers. Even before she inherited her uncle’s farm, thus giving her the freedoms and control denied nearly all other females in the British Isles, she would turn down an earnest marriage proposal because she could not imagine herself belonging to any man.
As counter programming to the impending onslaught of superheroes and excessive noise in the multiplexes, this vigorous and melodramatic re-imagining of rural Victorian England with its pastoral sheep farms and noiseless country air, far from the human stew of London, arrives in cinemas as a most welcome balm.
John Schlesinger, of course, made the first movie version back in 1967. There have been stage versions as well and even a comic strip, “Tamara Drewe,” was inspired by Hardy’s novel. So this may be an “old war horse,” as the saying goes, but take her out on the verdant rolling hills of Hardy country and, boy, can she ride like the wind.
The movie breezes lightly yet smartly through the many seasons of Hardy’s fiction, through storms, personal disaster and misadventures, passions and betrayals, an assessment of feminine and masculine strengths and finally the question of what makes a good marital match.
British films about veddy British subjects these days mean sometimes importing talent from elsewhere. Thus the director is Thomas Vinterberg, the Dane known as one of the original founders of the Dogme 95 and creator of one of the best films to come out of that avant-garde film movement, “The Celebration.”
He collaborates once more with Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen to capture the rustic beauty of what is still to this day the rolling farmlands of Dorset in southwestern England.
And playing the robust, loyal sheep farmer Gabriel Oak — a man as sturdy and forbearing as the tree for which he is named — is the amazing Flemish actor Matthias Schoenaerts, star of such strong European films as “Bullhead” and “Rust and Bone.”
The screenwriter is however British — he would almost have to be, wouldn’t he? — this being novelist and screenwriter David Nicholls. He’s becoming an expert in translating Hardy into the visual medium having already adapted “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” for the BBC.
He gets the text translated to the screen in an efficient 118 minutes so as to concentrate on its four key characters.
These are headstrong Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) — and, yes, Suzanne Collins did adopt the last name for her heroine in “The Hunger Games” — the determined shepherd Gabriel (Schoenaerts), Bathsheba’s prosperous, middle-aged suitor William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and the devilishly handsome and dashing Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge).
Her rejection of Gabriel’s proposal, her subsequent inheritance and Gabriel’s own dramatic reversal of fortune frame the first act with Boldwood and Troy’s matrimonial pursuit of the spirited beauty occupying a long second act followed by a serious mistake in judgement by Bathsheba and then humiliation, revenge, tragedy and a rare happy ending for Hardy closing out the story.
The actors nicely underplay the passions that abound in this tale of persistence and watchfulness. While emotions run hot, it is in the British character, and certainly the aim of these actors, to submerge feelings, which only show their true colors in the eyes, choice of words and body language.
These people listen well before they speak, measure their words carefully and take their leave when things threaten to blow up. Only Sturridge’s performance is weak in this regard, although I have no doubt actor and director willed it so.
He tips off his character’s arrogance, chauvinism and dissolute behavior too early for my tastes. Thus you don’t quite see what Bathsheba must see in him to let her sexual urges for once overrule common sense. A villainously dark mustache and stiff red-coated soldier’s costume, no doubt all true to period, only add to your suspicion of his intentions.
Yet Mulligan makes you believe her character to be a woman young enough to make one bad decision — as opposed perhaps to her poor decision to ignore the man who truly loves her — and to rue that decision almost immediately.
Schoenaerts lets his eyes do so very, very much as he watches all all this mischief from a very close distance. He watches, suffers, but never turns his back.
Martin plays the prosperous landowner, the most eligible bachelor in the county, as a man who can keep a firm lid on emotions until the one moment he cannot. An impressive performance that is among Martin’s best.
There is two other female characters who don’t quite make it out of the novel and onto the screen yet are impressively acted when they do appear.
Juno Temple plays the tragic Fanny Robin, Troy’s true love who gets the wrong end of the stick from Hardy at every turn, while the very able Jessica Barden lends her usual comic brilliance to the role of Liddy, Bathsheba’s closest servant.
Christensen’s beautiful lensing, Kave Quinn’s meticulous production design and especially Craig Armstrong’s lilting, romantic music make this foreign clime a place where you may not want to tarry for long but a lovely, vibrant, enthralling place to visit for a couple of hours.
Opens: May 1, 2015 (Fox Searchlight)
Production: BBC Film and TSG Entertainment present a DNA Films production
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple, Jessica Barden
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Screenwriter: David Nicholls
Based on the novel by: Thomas Hardy
Producers: Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich
Executive producer: Christine Langan
Director of photography: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Production designer: Kave Quinn
Music: Craig Armstrong
Costume designer: Janet Patterson
Editor: Claire Simpson
PG-13 rating, 118 minutes