It’s hard to believe that a 2015 screen adaptation of an 1874 Thomas Hardy novel could be even stodgier than the 1967 movie version, but director Thomas Vinterberg‘s take on “Far From the Madding Crowd” accomplishes just that. It’s not just that Vinterberg’s work here pales next to the admittedly flawed John Schlesinger film; anyone watching this prosaic, “Masterpiece Classic”-friendly movie would be hard-pressed to connect it to the firebrand filmmaker behind the revolutionary 1998 drama “The Celebration.”
Alternating between character close-ups and pastoral shots of the British countryside (courtesy of cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, “The Hunt”) and scored to a soaring fare-thee-well by Craig Armstrong (“The Great Gatsby”), “Far From the Madding Crowd” will no doubt captivate future generations of tenth-graders who couldn’t be bothered to read the book, but it flattens the complex characters and grand scope of Hardy’s novel into an airless and overly truncated CliffsNotes version.
The movie hops so frantically from incident to incident that almost none of the characters get a moment to develop; our first glimpse at most of our protagonists tells us everything we’re going to know about them for the next two hours.
Carey Mulligan stars as Bathsheba Everdene, who catches the eye of local shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts); she turns down his proposal of marriage despite the fact that she is impoverished, while he has land and a flock of 200 sheep. Soon enough, their fortunes are reversed: She inherits her uncle’s estate, and he becomes destitute after one of his dogs sends his lambs running off a seaside cliff like so many lemmings.
Settling in as an employee on Bathsheba’s farm, Frank must watch as two other men catch her fancy — stuffy landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and roguish military officer Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge, “Effie Gray”). In the novel, Bathsheba is a forthright, independent woman whose desires are nonetheless torn between her heart, her head, and the demands of society. The screenplay by David Nicholls (“One Day,” “Starter for 10”), unfortunately, makes it so obvious that Gabriel is the right man for her that movie-Bathsheba comes off like a Katherine Heigl rom-com character who’s the last person on earth to figure out that Mr. Most Suitable is staring her right in the face.
Vinterberg crams his scenes together so closely that there’s little feeling of time having passed; when Gabriel helps put out a barn fire on what turns out to be Bathsheba’s barn, we don’t know how long it’s been since his unsuccessful proposal. Other incidents seem shoved back-to-back, like when she dismisses him for impertinence but then needs his help saving her sheep; he’s barely made it off the property before she comes begging for his aid.
There’s a conspicuous tidiness to “Far From the Madding Crowd;” the laborers on Bathsheba’s farm apparently enjoy access to 19th century England’s finest dentistry, and the costumes appear more like distressed casual separates than the weathered and woolen clothes of workers who spend their days dipping sheep and harvesting grain. Even Boldwood’s Christmas party, an awkward affair thrown by a man unaccustomed to such revels, feels like something out of a catalog offering table runners and fresh-cut wreaths.
It does at least help that Schoenaerts and Mulligan have palpable chemistry; he’s so indelible as this hearty man of the earth that it makes you believe the porcelain Mulligan has done a day’s farm labor in her life. (In her two scenes of toil, she gets the exact same smudge on the exact same part of her cheek.) Sheen gets to play the one character who changes, evolving from stuffed-shirt gentry to obsessed quasi-stalker, never overplaying either extreme.
We can only guess how intense and romantic a “Far From the Madding Crowd” Vinterberg might have made back in his Dogme 95 days, when he crafted ascetic, rigorous films that avoided filligree. The “Madding” adaptation he wound up making only manages to be genteel and skin-deep; this BBC Films co-production feels as benign and smothering as a tea cozy.