The landscapes director Thomas Vinterberg selected as the backdrop for his adaptation of the 1874 Tomas Hardy novel, “Far from the Madding Crowd,” are sweeping vistas. The lush flowing hills are commanding in the way they envelope the story and deliver it in a beautiful package.
As good as the landscapes are, they pale in comparison to the sweeping emotional range Carey Mulligan brings to the story’s central heroine, Bathsheba Everdene. With only a hint of a smile, she reveals emotional moments as deep as any dell. A loving glance creates mountains of emotional drama.
Mulligan’s masterful in her portrayal of the independent woman who keeps having her emotional freedom hampered by the men who fall hopelessly in love with her. Even the audience will find it difficult to resist her charms. She plays a 19th Century woman who believes she is as strong as any man —something she proves when she inherits a farm and takes over the daily operation.
The work’s complicated by three men who declare their undying love for her: Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a poor but honest sheep herder who declared his love for Everdene years ago; William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a rich and emotionally struggling neighbor; and Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a handsome soldier with a reckless streak.
Hardy’s novel beautifully defines the three suitors to make each comes across as very distinct. Vinterberg manages to show how parts of each would make for the ideal mate for the impetuous and independent Everdene. But as with novels dealing with romance — whether written 141 years ago or yesterday — there is nothing easy or exact when it comes to matters of the heart.
Both Schoenaerts and Sturridge turn in strong efforts, but it’s Sheen who gives the first performance of 2015 deserving attention from Academy Award voters. He artfully mixes the pain and suffering of loneliness with the insecurities of courting. But, while the character is an emotional wreck, he never comes across as weak.
The scenes with Sheen and Mulligan are multi-layered travels through emotional hills and valleys that echo with honesty. They work together so perfectly they seem to be channeling lost souls rather than just playing a part. This is vital because if their relationship doesn’t ring true, the rest of the movie gets lost in a fog.
Mulligan is equally strong with her other admirers. There’s a sweetness that comes through her face that reflects the endearing relationship she has with Oak. And then, Mulligan can turn up the heat to play a woman longing for and fearing passion in the moments with Troy. Her work is miles better than the stagnated efforts that came out of “The Great Gatsby.”
It helps that the script by David Nicholls captures much of the beauty and ugliness of the Hardy novel. Vinterberg then put together the right cast to create a first-rate adaptation that gets an additional boost from the stunning English setting.
This is the kind of combination that separates the story from the madding crowd of popcorn movies that dominate the theater screens this time of year.