The ultimate failure of “Far From the Madding Crowd,” the latest screen adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel, resides mainly in an area almost too delicate to mention. But as there’s no gain in hinting or talking around the issue, there’s really no alternative.
Set in the late 19th century, the movie tells the story of a young, independent woman who inherits a large farming estate. Bathsheba is a woman of such charm and vivacity that every man she meets falls instantly in love with her: “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” In the 1967 adaptation, directed by John Schlesinger, Bathsheba was played by Julie Christie, so the spectacle of grown men falling all over themselves made perfect sense.
In this new version, Bathsheba is played by … Carey Mulligan.
Now let’s just say straight out that it’s hardly unthinkable that a man could be in love with Carey Mulligan. Nor is it outside the realm of possibility that three men could be in love with Carey Mulligan. But three for three? Three out of three implies four out of four. It implies an irresistible force, capable of ensnaring anyone. But that force isn’t there. If it could be acted, Mulligan could do it — she’s a fine actress. But charm on that scale can’t be acted. It’s either there or it’s not.
So the experience of watching “Far From the Madding Crowd” is that of seeing men tumbling into lustfulness, love or sputtering incoherence right at the precise moment we’re expecting them to say, “You’re really terrific, and I hope we can be good friends.” It’s the experience of waiting for a shoe that never drops, such as the revelation that all three men have only recently been released from prison.
For a tale of passion, this is a problem, though Mulligan brings other qualities to the table that compensate to a degree. She gives Bathsheba an alert intelligence and a witty appreciation for the people around her. Scene by scene, she creates a game, adept and altogether admirable kind of person, despite the character’s occasional lapses into high-spirited imperiousness. In Mulligan, such lapses seem less forgivable than they might in another actress, as her entire essence is thoughtful and in control of her actions. Still, Bathsheba remains, in Mulligan’s hands, an appealing and worthy spirit.
In a sense, the attempt (and to some degree the achievement) of the film is to persuade us to see the action entirely through Bathsheba’s eyes, so that we experience the men as an external problem. Gabriel (Matthias Schoenaerts), once a suitor and now a farm employee, is clearly the most capable and trustworthy man in her life, but he is beneath her socially and therefore out of the question. Meanwhile the sensible choice, Mr. Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a landowner in his 40s, is desperately in love with her, but she can’t work up an attraction for him. Perhaps this is understandable, as every time he sees her he becomes overwhelmed with frustrated emotion and looks as if he’s about to burst out sobbing.
A completely not-sensible choice is more to Bathsheba’s liking, a sergeant in the army (Tom Sturridge), who charms her with neither word nor deed but by stirring her blood with a display of swordsmanship. Thomas Hardy knew a thing or two about human nature.
The English countryside, the bucolic setting, the sheep and horses and cows, the green fields and dirt roads, and the rituals of farm life all attract the eye and ground the film in authentic and winning detail. Mulligan and the film are at their best when Bathsheba is presented as a businesswoman, getting into the grit and muck of farmwork, wading into the water to bathe the sheep or nerving herself up to fire a corrupt employee.
Still, a “Far From the Madding Crowd” in which romance is a matter of audience indifference or benign mystification is an adaptation not firing on all cylinders.