‘Madding Crowd’ the Costume Drama You’ve Been Waiting For

Far From the Madding Crowd
Two and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13 (sexuality, violence)
119 minutes
You may also want to check out the celebrated 1967 version of Thomas Hardy’s novel, starring Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, Peter Finch and Alan Bates. 

Ladies — and gentlemen, too, if you’re so inclined — I know it’s been awhile since you’ve enjoyed the frothy pleasures of a truly sumptuous costume drama.

Thank heavens, your wait is over.

Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” is a gorgeous film, worshiping at the altar of the English countryside in all its crisp, hearty beauty.

Dappled in sunlight, dripping with sensuality, and featuring a delicious performance by Carey Mulligan, it’s not a perfect specimen of the genre, but it will do nicely.

In fact, “Madding Crowd” is reminiscent of that pinnacle of British period pieces, Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” The story centers around a pair of potential lovers who are ideally suited for each other but are too stubborn to admit it. There are also shades of Austen’s “Emma” in a flawed heroine whose impetuous missteps bring unintended heartbreak for her circle of friends and acquaintances.

This is Hardy, though, not Austen, so while “Madding Crowd” begins with a light, almost playful vibe akin to a romantic comedy, the movie evolves into something darker and more distressing, thanks to the novelist’s tendency to harshly punish his characters for their moral failings.

You’d think Mulligan would be content to embody one of the most famous female characters in the history of literature after playing Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic take on “The Great Gatsby.”

In “Madding Crowd,” she notches up another passionate literary performance as one of Hardy’s most vivid creations, Bathsheba Everdene. (It’s no coincidence that Katniss, the strong- willed, romantically ambivalent heroine of “The Hunger Games,” shares her last name.)

Thanks to the luminous Mulligan, we have no trouble believing Bathsheba could steal the heart of every eligible bachelor to cross her path. We’re also willing to continue pulling for her when she proceeds to wreak emotional, and sometimes physical, havoc on several unsuspecting would-be suitors.

Bathsheba is educated but orphaned and penniless when she catches the eye of Gabriel Oak (Belgian hottie Matthias Schoenaerts), a neighboring shepherd who promptly proposes marriage.

Unwilling to surrender her independence, Bathsheba rejects his offer, though she feels some affection for the stalwart, good-humored friend who stands by her even when she’s at her worst.

A dramatic reversal of fortune finds Bathsheba inheriting her uncle’s farm, suddenly dependent on no man, while Gabriel loses everything and is forced to go in search of work. Fate brings the pair together again via a fiery cataclysm. Bathsheba hires Gabriel to oversee her livestock and the two renew their friendship, only now as employer and hired hand.

A girlish prank targeting the village’s most eligible but inaccessible bachelor, Lord Boldwood (Michael Sheen), triggers a second proposal. Despite his wealth and status, Bathsheba rejects him. As a financially independent women, she has no incentive to wed.

Lord Boldwood proves so persistent that Bathsheba reluctantly continues to entertain his advances, until she happens upon the dashing, young Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge).

With his ostentatious, red uniform and over-sized mustache, Sgt. Troy is obviously bad news, but can you blame Bathsheba for being dazzled by him when her previous suitors’ proposals were more inventories of property than declarations of love?

Whether Hardy’s heroine is a shameless hussy who must suffer for her wildness or a victim of the social constraints placed upon women in Victorian times has long been the subject of debate.

Vinterberg and British screenwriter David Nicholls take a decidedly modern approach to this dilemma.

“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language chiefly made by men to define theirs,” Bathsheba protests in one scene. The movie’s themes are largely summed up in this one line, taken directly from the Hardy novel.

Nicholls knows the author well. He adapted “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” into a 2008 miniseries starring Gemma Arterton. For whatever reason, though, the screenwriter has a tendency to omit small but telling details from the novel, so it’s occasionally difficult to get a grasp on the various characters and their individual catastrophes.

For instance, we’re left to wonder how many years have passed between events, why the arrival of a bride at the wrong church on her wedding day could yield so much tragedy, and when the enmity between two men erupts in violence near the film’s end, it comes entirely out of the blue.

Still, “Far From the Madding Crowd” has everything you’d want in a costume drama. This includes the actual costumes, most notably Mulligan’s smart but swoon-worthy wardrobe; a lot of good, old-fashioned, repressed romance; and a sexy, self-sacrificing leading man to (almost) rival the ultimate in sexy, self-sacrificing leading men.

I’m speaking, of course, of Mr. Darcy.

Vinterberg is one of the founders of the strict Dogme 95 school of filmmaking, which emphasized, among other things, the use of natural sound and light.

That experience serves him well here as he conjures up a rugged, tantalizing idyll of rural living in which the simplest, most unlikely image, the unraveling of a braid, the care of sheep or, in one almost comically Freudian scene, the twirling of a sword, is unspeakably erotic.

Oh, yes. Bosoms will heave.

Photo: http://www.bbc.co.uk




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