Adapting classic literature is always a tricky feat as so much of a novel’s impact lies in its prose and the intimate perspective it offers. These are characteristics that cannot be replicated in a film, so instead of trying to “shoot the book,” it’s better for filmmakers to latch onto one thematic or narrative element that transfixes them and run with that. That’s what Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg does with his recent adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, which throws aside major portions of the novel in favour of fixating on the passionate characters that constitute its centre. I haven’t read the novel so I cannot comment on its quality as an adaptation, but as a period romance about a headstrong young woman and her trio of suitors, it’s a lively, evocative work with more blood in its veins than most films, not to mention literary ones.
Carey Mulligan stars as Bathsheba Everdene, a headstrong orphan who inherits her uncle’s farm and goes about building a name for herself as a mistress and farmer. Bewitched in her orbit are three very different men, each of whom hold her as the object of their affection: the sturdy shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the mature bachelor, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and the rakish Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). As Everdene’s fortune rises, she finds herself drawn to each of them despite her own strong protestations of independence. Each of the men responds to her affections (or lack thereof) in different ways, and thus, the film’s dramatic conflict is born.
Director Thomas Vinterberg—best known for The Hunt and the Dogme 95 film The Celebration—eschews most of the conventional literary adaptation qualities. He only uses voice over briefly at the beginning of the film and he doesn’t linger much on the countryside with long establishing shots, no matter how gorgeous the cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen makes Dorset looks in the film. In fact, Vinterberg doesn’t establish any of Far from the Madding Crowd’s scenes, which can be disorienting in the opening act. Instead, he and editor Claire Simpson cut from close-up to close-up, lingering on the faces of these characters, constantly watching them in the midst of their drama.
For instance, the film will linger on a conversation between Bathsheba and Boldwood, the camera on Michael Sheen’s face as he stammers through some declaration of affection. It’ll then cut to the shepherd Oak, out in the field, his eyes darting up to catch a glimpse of Bathsheba as she surveys her quarry. It takes a moment to realize that we’re in a different scene at a different time and that Oak isn’t witnessing the conversation between Bathsheba and Boldwood. Vinterberg and Simpson don’t edit in order to establish context. They edit in order to juxtapose characters, align them through emotions, or set them against each other through how they differently comport themselves.
In this example, we’re cued to the different ways Boldwood and Oak watch Bathsheba, the different forms their affection takes. It’s an extremely effective way to edit a film, but also somewhat radical. It sweeps you up in the emotions of what we’re witnessing, allowing us great intimacy with the characters, without paying much attention to narrative. And there is a lot of narrative here, with twists and turns as the story progresses, sweeping from revelation to confrontation and back again. I could see some viewers being frustrated with how Far from the Madding Crowd glosses over certain plot developments, but I was happy to fixate on the characters and their romantic preoccupations in place of narrative.
I also don’t think I’ve seen a literary adaptation rely so heavily on the faces of its performers, or so effectively overuse the close-up. I usually find modern films overly rely on close-ups, as it’s a convention of television which required the camera to be closer to the performer as the screen is so small—which is not the case with movie screens. Happily, Far from the Madding Crowd uses close-ups smartly, replacing the prose intimacy of a novel with the intimacy of a camera watching faces that never stop emoting. In one scene Vinterberg uses close-ups to link Boldwood and Bathsheba as they sing “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” at a dinner table. For a moment you imagine that these characters could be happy together, despite their incompatibilities. Vinterberg is even smart enough to pan to Oak in one moment to register the discomfort on his face as they sing.
There’s also a scene of courtship/foreplay between Bathsheba and Sergeant Troy where Troy shows off his fencing skills on Bathsheba as she stands perfectly still, grazing her hair with his sword. It’s an apparently famous moment from the novel and it’s rendered beautifully here, with both actors occupying single frames facing the camera, as if we’re caught between the two of them as the shots cut back and forth. If the camera had been any further away from the performers, the scene would’ve lost its intimacy, its sexual energy. It’s a moment that shows how essential close-ups can be.
Far from the Madding Crowd is as good a literary adaptation as you can hope for in the modern cinema. It’s boldly made, full of bright colours and bright passions, big faces and big emotions. It’s a beautiful film, revitalizing a genre that can be as boring as a rainy day without a good book to read.
8 out of 10
Far from the Madding Crowd (2015, UK)
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg; written by David Nicholls based on the novel by Thomas Hardy; starring Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple.