‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ and the games men – and women – play

  Matthias Schoenaerts at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Photograph by Georges Biard.

Matthias Schoenaerts at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Photograph by Georges Biard.

The new film of “Far From the Madding Crowd,” based on the evocative Thomas Hardy novel, has gotten mixed reviews – which is too bad. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg and adapted by David Nicholls, it is a movie of great feeling and equally great subtlety, not an easy combination to come by, with cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen that captures the bucolic moodiness of England’s “Hardy country” and a haunting score by Craig Armstrong that makes excellent use of both the folk and symphonic traditions.

“Madding” is also superbly acted by a cast that conveys the emotional complexity of  an independent young woman navigating a man’s world. Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is the woman in question. Poor and orphaned but nonetheless well-educated, she has no inclination to marry. A turn of good fortune (her late uncle leaves her his farm) ensures she won’t have to. But if it’s true, as Jane Austen said ironically, that a single man of good fortune must be in want of a wife, then it’s equally true, as Hardy implies, that a single woman of great beauty must be in need of a husband. Before you can say “The Bachelorette,” Bathsheba’s suitors are lining up. Rising farmer-turned-down-on-his-luck shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) is first up, with his offer of a pet lamb and a piano. He’s kind, intelligent, spirited and hard-working – a woman’s idea of a man’s man – and since he’s played by sex symbol du jour Schoenaerts, the obvious match for Bathsheba. (Indeed, you don’t have to read past the first chapter of the novel to know this.) But Bathsheba is too young and willful to see it. She’d be happy enough to be a bride, the center of attention, as long as she didn’t have the responsibilities of a wife. That never works.

And so she misunderstands the depth of feeling she inspires in her second suitor, the melancholy Mr. Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and the depth of caddishness she inflames in her third, Sgt. Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). She doesn’t get that it is the rare man, a Gabriel Oak, who does something for a woman for nothing. And even though she’s unwilling to barter her beauty, her dangling of it means she’s still going to have to pay the price of male power.

That’s the movie’s more conventional story – the way a man can hurt a smart but still foolish woman. There’s an extraordinary scene, however, that captures the flip side – how a thoughtless woman can hurt a sensitive, loving man. It occurs between Gabriel and Mr. Boldwood and concerns the feelings they both have for Bathsheba. Mr. Boldwood, too, has been rejected by her. Yet he seeks to salvage both her honor and his pride. She never said she would marry me, he tells Gabriel, whom he recognizes as another of her unrequited lovers. And yet, he adds, why do I feel such grief?

It’s a moment of incredible pathos, played with quiet despair by Sheen and understated empathy by Schoenaerts.

Their characters are rivals, stoic men of the 19th century. And yet, there is an exchange between souls here that is all the more remarkable given the perimeters of their reticence.