A woman fights to keep her freedom in Thomas Hardy’s love quadrangle, rendered visually by director Thomas Vinterberg in a poised, crisp, and actor-centric film.
Some people have all the luck. Take Bathsheba Everdere (Carey Mulligan), the willful heroine in Thomas Vintenberg’s gleamingly romantic adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Mulligan’s perceptive performance gives some hint of Bathsheba’s internal anxieties, but in the main, she is blessed and seems to know it. In 1870 Dorset, at a time in Europe when it was by no means uncommon to fall sick and die or starve to death simply for lack of funds, she is beautiful and unattached, a young woman free to find her way in the world. This comes before her surprise inheritance.
Despite and because of her independence, Bathsheba's is something of a feminist tale. Repeatedly, she’s enjoined by men to become their bride. Interrupted during her busy schedule of galloping freely across the rolling Dorset hills and tilling the fields of her aunt’s farm, Bathsheba is solicited by their neighboring farmer, Gabriel Oakes (Matthias Schoenaerts). With a twinkle that's somehow ingratiating and not grating, Bathsheba turns him down. Though he's a decent catch, leading-man handsome, ambitious, and with confidence that doesn’t cross into braggadocio, she’s not interested: “I’d hate to be some man’s property,” she announces.
Property and possession are recurring themes here, whether livestock, land, or women’s bodies. “I have 200 acres,” Gabriel includes in the curriculum vitae part of his modest proposal. One day she could have a piano, he suggests. Her practical-minded suitors speak to a conventional concern, insisting they'll be able to take care of her. One proposal comes appended with a recitation of acreage, and another promise of a piano. By the time this one comes her way, Bathsheba is wealthy enough to have her own piano, thank you very much.
This because, not long after Gabriel’s proposal, Bathsheba wins a surprise inheritance of the kind that always enlivens so much literature of the 18th and 19th centuries. An uncle leaves her his estate and farm. So she packs up her few possessions, a lamb that Gabriel gave her, and heads off to her new life. At her new home, she transforms into mistress of the estate, assuring the workers that she will treat them fairly and will be out in the fields before they will. As she puts it, “I intend to astonish you all.”
Apart from her promise, Mulligan’s great supply of pluck tends to dispense with any gender-based obstacles in Bathsheba’s path. Not long after her arrival at the farm, Gabriel shows up with all his possessions in a bag. Having lost everything after one of his dogs goes mad and sends his entire flock of sheep stampeding over a cliff, he’s now reduced to working as another of her laborers. While Gabriel pines manfully, the wealthy neighbor Boldwood (Michael Sheen) starts making noises about taking Bathsheba off the marriage market. But although the gentle and anxious Boldwood appears as decent a sort as Gabriel, his entreaties land on fallow ground. He offers to combine their acreage and give her all the security she could want. “I will protect you,” he says, looking as though he can't believe he has to try this hard to woo her. “I have no need for a husband," she tells him.
When Bathsheba does choose a husband, it’s for love, or maybe just lust. One of the most vivid moments captured by cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen comes right after what looks to have been Bathsheba’s first kiss. She wanders away into a dark cluster of pines, drunk on the moment. It’s a rare loss of control for her, one the film registers beautifully, as it also telegraphs that it will have disastrous consequences.
Hardy’s love quadrangle doesn’t leave many clean ways for the story to extricate itself. So when yet another contrivance in a plot that’s littered with them neatly snips off its most troublesome elements and sets us up for a clean romantic swoon of an ending, it’s hard not to feel that it’s all been engineered too neatly. This isn’t a great irritation, as Vinterberg’s poised, crisp, and actor-centric handling of the story has all the confidence that he showed in the more astringent drama The Hunt. Of course, we see Bathsheba in a parade of beautifully tailored dresses. But Vinterberg and Christensen show her wearing them on multiple occasions: she’s a woman of means, but has limits. too.
All that money and security, all those eligible bachelors. As they say, Bathsheba has the good kind of problems. But as every proper romantic tale knows, even choosing between two adoring partners can be its own kind of pain.