★ ★ ★ ★
“It is my intention to astonish you all,” Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) tells her field hands and staff after she inherits her uncle’s estate, which she plans to turn into a productive, working farm following a near-devastating fire. And astonish she does, what with her fiercely independent spirit, headstrong determination, and steadfast willingness to get her hands dirty in order to accomplish a task. But equally astonishing, especially for a woman typically so careful with affairs of the heart, is her ability to throw caution to the wind and embark on an impetuous romance that could lead to her ruin.
Thomas Vinterberg’s graceful, lushly photographed adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s well-regarded 1874 novel—which has been filmed three times previously, most notably by John Schlesinger in 1967 with Julie Christie as Bathsheba—is a welcome respite from the multiplex’s recent assault of superhero derring-do, apocalyptic mayhem, and futuristic tales. It is an involving and richly observed period piece that will appeal to moviegoers desperately seeking more than explosions and CGI-generated shenanigans at the cinema.
When we first meet Bathsheba, she is working on her aunt’s farm in 1870 Dorset. There, she meets handsome shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), who impulsively asks her to marry him. She quickly refuses his proposal and says she’s too independent to get married, adding that any man she might wed would need to tame her first, and she doesn’t think he’s the one to do it. Soon afterwards, Gabriel loses his flock and is forced to seek work elsewhere. To his surprise, he is hired by Bathsheba to be the shepherd for her newly inherited estate. But Gabriel isn’t the only one smitten by the wistful new landowner. Wealthy bachelor William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a middle-aged neighboring farmer, also asks for her hand. She doesn’t reject him outright, which leaves him with a shred of hope. But that hope is dashed when she meets Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), a charismatic sergeant who overpowers Bathsheba with his youthful and seductive spirit. He asks to meet her alone in the woods, where he displays his expert swordsmanship by thrusting his saber close to her enraptured face and lopping off a lock of her hair. The scene is sensuous and erotically charged. Suffice it say, Bathsheba is tamed.
What follows is an oft-retold tale of regret, ruin, and renewal that is tinged with violence. It is mostly predictable but still works, mainly due to its enthralling cast. Carey Mulligan is ravishing, and it is easily apparent why the three “Madding” men are so taken with her. Her Bathsheba, while strongly independent, is also inwardly vulnerable and desperately wants to be loved. As for her suitors, Sturridge makes the strongest impression. His Sgt. Troy is at once magnetic and repulsive, and he sets the story ablaze with his reckless behavior. Sheen is heartbreakingly good as Boldwood, and Schoenaerts delivers an understated performance that is all the more powerful for its restraint.
The film was shot on location in Dorset, England, and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (who also lensed Vinterberg’s Oscar-nominated The Hunt) perfectly captures the country’s harsh beauty and rugged landscape with elegant compositions lit mostly with natural light. The movie looks like a work of art—and a fine one at that.