How often nowadays are we told that this it’s the year of the woman? Where are the strong female protagonists? I’d argue that we have films like that, but there’s been a lot of discussion about assertive female characters on screen. We get a look here at one with Thomas Vinterberg’s “Far from the Madding Crowd,” an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel and the third time, to my knowledge, that this story has been turned into a film.
It’s a strong film and it’s biggest advantage is Carey Mulligan’s leading performance as a woman who abides by no one’s rules by her own and is too independent to be tamed. I’m all for that.
The film begins in Dorset, England, 1870. We get some opening- nay, expository- narration from our main character, Bathsheba Everdene, played by Carey Mulligan. Ms. Everdene’s parents died when she was very young and, as such, is used to being on her own.
One day, Ms. Everdene goes on a ride for her horse, but loses her scarf in the process. Managing to spot, retrieve, and return said scarf to Ms. Everdene is a farmer, Gabriel Oak, played by Matthias Schoenaerts.
Oak then visits a farm owned by Bathsheba’s aunt. With him is a newborn lamb that he gives to Everdene. However, he’s really here to ask for Everdene’s hand in marriage. Everdene isn’t a fan of this approach, but that doesn’t mean she’s saying no. However, just because she doesn’t have a husband doesn’t mean that she’ll accept his proposal. Oak makes his case: he has land and once he pays it off, it can be hers as well.
Everdene has no need of land or a husband, though. What she has is an education. She’s too independent to be tamed by anyone and feels that Oak would despise her, but Oak denies this.
That night, Gabriel wakes up in the middle of the night to the sound of one of his dogs, Old George, whining. The sheep are chased away by Gabriel’s other dog, George- very original names, this guy- and they break through their pen. Though Gabriel gives pursuit, he’s too late as the dog chases the sheep off of a cliff, where the sheep fall to their deaths. No seriously, what the living hell was that?
Anyway, Gabriel fixes this by shooting George. With little left to his name, Gabriel sells Old George and goes on his way.
Ms. Everdene, meanwhile, receives word that her uncle has died and left everything he owned to her. She packs up with all of her things and leaves.
Oak, though, wanders upon a group of soldiers recruiting. One soldier in particular receives a blown kiss from his sweetheart, Fanny Robbin, played by Juno Temple from The Dark Knight Rises. I mean, she’s been in more, but that’s what I remember her from recently. Anyway, Fanny plans to marry this soldier soon and suggests that Gabriel try a farm at Weatherbury.
Instead, Gabriel continues to traverse by himself. He ends up at the very farm that Fanny spoke of, but finds it going up in flames. Men and women rush to save what they can salvage. Gabriel takes some extra initiative by dousing himself in water and heading atop one building to put out the fire on one roof, thus saving the farm tons of wool. The workers take notice of this stranger making an effort to help them.
Next day, Gabriel meets the owner of said farm: Ms. Bathsheba herself. She gives him a job as a shepherd and explains not just how she inherited the land, but that she intends to fix it up. Their reversal of circumstances does not bring Gabriel any sort of embarrassment.
Indeed, Ms. Everdene is a very busy and effective leader. In the following scene, she interviews and pays her employees in schillings. One employee, Fanny Robbin, is missing. Turns out that she ran off with some sergeant. No matter. Ms. Bathsheba ends up relieving Bailiff Pennyways, played by Victor McGuire, of his duties, as he was nowhere to be seen during the fire. As Pennyways leaves, Bathsheba appoints Oak as the new shepherd. She announces to her employees that she is the mistress, not master. Though she may not know what her talents are, she will work and astonish them all.
Later on, Bathsheba and her faithful sidekick, Liddy, played by Jessica Barden, go into town to sell grain. She’s the only woman around and many of the men pass her up. Liddy wants to leave, but Bathsheba manages to negotiate with a man who is a friend of her uncle’s. The man tries to haggle for a lower price, but the two eventually reach an agreement.
During this, we’re introduced to another character, William Boldwood, played by Michael Sheen. Mr. Boldwood is a wealthy individual and Liddy thinks that he would be a perfect match for Bathsheeba. In fact, the two conspire to send Boldwood a Valentine’s Day as a joke. Of course, how many guys do you know that would receive a Valentine’s Day card from a woman they like and treat it as a joke?
Elsewhere, Sergeant Francis Troy, played by Tom Sturridge, the soldier we saw before, is at a church, ready to marry Fanny Robbin. Not much longer now. The priest and everyone else in the congregation wait and wait, but no sign of Fanny.
It’s not intentional, though. It turns out that Fanny was dressed in her wedding gown and ready for this day, but she went to the wrong church. It happens. The priest cannot wait any longer and a devastated Troy leaves.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, Gabriel and the others wash sheep while Ms. Everdene watches. Gabriel doesn’t think that Ms. Everdene would join in but, to everyone’s surprise and applause, Bathsheba does indeed get in the water and lends a hand.
As this happens, Mr. Boldwood walks up to the farm and watches. Liddy alerts Bathsheba to this. The two head to Mr. Boldwood’s place and discuss his property. Boldwood makes a…well, bold move and asks for Bathsheba’s hand in marriage, promising her a great future. She is surprised and does not feel justified to accept the offer. Boldwood has known disappointment before, but given the Valentine’s Day card, which Bathsheba admits she should not have sent, he thought there was something mutual between the two. It was a wicked move, and Bathsheba eventually asks for more time to consider this position.
Bathsheba returns to the farm and spots Gabriel sharpening some tools. She wants to learn, so he teaches her a few things. He also reveals that some of the men have been gossiping about her possibly marrying Mr. Boldwood by year’s end. Bathsheba wants Gabriel to contradict that, but he won’t lie just to please her. She doesn’t want his opinion on the matter, but then she asks for it. Fine. He says that she’s to blame for leading on Mr. Boldwood. That sort of thing is beneath her. She won’t have this criticism. Bathsheba wants him gone by the end of the week, but Gabriel does her one better: he’ll leave right now.
However, Gabriel leaves at the worst possible time. Bathsheba learns that her sheep are dying from swollen stomachs. They must be pierced in the side with a tool, but it’s a very delicate process. If done improperly, the sheep will die. And guess who happens to be the one man that knows how to help?
At first, one of Bathsheba’s workers goes after Gabriel and does catch up to him, but the man returns alone. Turns out that Gabriel wants Bathsheba to ask him herself. Beggars mustn’t be choosers, after all. Bear in mind that Bathsheba is in a higher position of authority than Gabriel, but you know what? Bathsheba eventually rides after Gabriel and asks him to not desert her. She needs his help.
Fortunately, Gabriel returns to the farm and manages to save the sheep.
That evening, Bathsheba and her workers gather for a festive dinner. Bathsheba and Gabriel sneak a few glances each other’s way, but then Boldwood arrives. Soon, it’s time for music. Bathsheba sings Let No Man Steal Your Thyme. Everyone is enthralled and Boldwood himself eventually joins in with the singing.
After dinner, the two talk together for a bit. Bathsheba thanks Boldwood for not bringing up the proposal, which was not easy for him. However, she prefers to walk back alone. On the way, though, she trips and runs into Sergeant Troy. The two end up intertwined and tangled. Troy finds Everdene to be a beautiful woman and can’t help but stare, but Everdene eventually frees herself and leaves.
Next day, however, Troy is working in the fields. Everdene wants Troy gone, but he won’t leave. Instead, he wants to meet her tomorrow at eight.
Indeed, Everdene finds Troy waiting in the woods, fully dressed in uniform. He gives his word that he won’t hurt her and begins to slash at the air with his sword. He ends up cutting off a lock of her hair. The sword was, to Everdene’s surprise, was sharp, but hey, Troy did promise that Everdene would be safe. He then kisses her and heads off, leaving Everdene absolutely stunned.
And that’s how Bathsheba Everdene got her very first kiss.
What makes Far from the Madding Crowd work is how it presents its main character. From the start, we see that Everdene is no pushover and doesn’t just swoon over male suitors. She’s more than capable of standing on her own two feet and will prove herself to the world not because she’s a woman, but because she’s capable. Some have called Bathsheba Everdene a proto-feminist, and I can see that.
I’ll admit that I’ve never read Thomas Hardy’s 1874 original novel or either of the previous two film adaptations of the book, but Thomas Vinterberg’s interpretation does a good job establishing its tone from the start. Though we’re placed in a world where women won’t have the right vote for more than 40 years from now, Everdene herself isn’t about to let that ruin her disposition.
Self-reliance and independence are two big themes in this film. Everdene makes a point early on of telling Gabriel that she has no interest in a husband or becoming someone’s property. No, that’s not her priority because she has an education. Society did and still today does have certain expectations of women for whatever reason. They’re expected to stay at home, get chores done, give birth, you know the routine. That’s not Everdene’s future, though.
We want to live out our lives the way we want them to go, but that’s difficult if the world around you is dead-set on fitting you into certain roles and categories. And we can either be complacent and go along for the ride, or grab life by the horns and carve out your own legacy. That’s exactly what Everdene plans to do without hitching her wagon to a man.
Each of the suitors offers something different to Everdene. Troy is a soldier: full of energy and vigor. Through giving Everdene her first kiss, he opens her up to a world of sexual desires and pleasure that she never once experienced. The problem with Troy is that he’s a scoundrel. His initial charm is forgotten by the time we see the more despicable side of him displayed towards both Everdene and Fanny Robbin, but that’s spoiler territory, so I’ll leave that alone.
And yet, he’s beaming with confidence, flaunts his authority, and demands to be taken seriously. Such self-reliance would give the impression that this man knows how to care for himself, as well as a woman, but as the film progresses, we see a more sinister side to him.
Mr. Boldwood isn’t dripping with swagger or youth, and that’s fine because he brings a wealth of experience and stability. Despite being deceived by a Valentine’s card, why does he want to marry Everdene? Because he wants to be a provider. He doesn’t see her as a subordinate or second-class citizen, but he does want to make sure that she’s taken care of for the rest of her life.
During his initial proposal, Boldwood tells Everdene that not only can he protect her, but he can give her luxuries like dresses and a piano. But Everdene responds that she already has a piano and a farm. She has no need for Boldwood’s protection or wealth, despite his good intentions. There’s a quiet dignity to Michael Sheen’s performance as Boldwood, as he comes off as a man who has dealt with rejection before, but hasn’t allowed it to defeat him. Even if the spark came through a ruse, he may have feelings for Everdene, but he’s not going to force her hand.
Finally, there’s Gabriel Oak, the loyal friend and advisor. Fate switches his and Bathsheba’s circumstances in Bathsheba’s favor, but despite that, he doesn’t think any different of her. In addition, the man needs a job, so it wouldn’t do him any favors to demean the woman who hands him his paycheck.
What sets Gabriel apart from both Troy and Boldwood is his willingness to challenge Bathsheba when she’s wrong. When she asks him about Boldwood, rather than saying that she should just go with her heart, he calls her out for sending a card to deceive a man because such behavior is beneath her. That’s the uncomfortable truth that you want someone to tell you instead of having them coddle you with falsehoods.
And more than that, he knows that Everdene is prideful…perhaps a bit too prideful. She sends him away after he gives his honest opinion, but it’s not until she needs his help that she realizes it’s time to swallow humble pie. But even then, she does it by proxy through sending one of her workers. Oak is smarter than that and wants Everdene to apologize in person, as it would show she is serious about requiring his services again. She can send as many workers as she wants, but it’s not the same as admitting to yourself that you need help, even when you think you’ve been slighted.
But the film takes great time to establish their friendship- they talk like they’ve been old friends for years and even when their lives change and Oak has to work for Everdene, nothing changes. For most of the film, Oak is like that guy who sees himself in the friend zone: he likes the girl, is willing to give advice, but can’t have her because he feels that she’s better suited for someone else.
The strength of the performances makes the two fit like a glove, but Carey Mulligan above all is excellent in her portrayal of Bathsheba Everdene. She carries Everdene with authority and makes her feel real, but at the same time, she’s not perfect or unwilling to do hard work. From the beginning, we see Everdene portrayed as a hard worker who intends to make it on her own steam.
Even after coming across an inheritance, she’s not going to just walk into wealth and let life take over. She’s going to keep working hard and astonish not just her coworkers, but the men who may think little of her because she’s a woman. Her gender is not a handicap. We’re told that Everdene is used to being on her own- which may explain why she’s not drawn to any suitors- but for my money, I wouldn’t have minded if we got some more explanation for her hard work ethic.
Everdene does feel ahead of her time or at least contrary to expectations held towards women during this period. Her independence and education are all that she need since she cannot be tamed. And there’s not even a hint of arrogance to her- she’s just that confident in herself and her abilities, which I like. Had she been meek or timid, I’d wonder how she got to the point where she is now without someone trying to boss her around. No. Here, Bathsheba is her own boss. As much as people talk about a lack of strong, independent female characters in films- I don’t necessarily agree with that, but whatever- Everdene is a change of pace from what we expect from female protagonists.
Now Far from the Madding Crowd isn’t a perfect film. It’s a good movie, a great movie, but my biggest issue is how it ends. Throughout the entire movie, Bathsheba has been willing to put her emotions aside and focus on bettering herself. She isn’t interested in love. At one point, Gabriel considers leaving because he wants to find a new life for himself in America. He even tells Bathsheba that it’s time for her to fight and win her own battles, which is what she’s been doing.
I don’t know whether Thomas Hardy just wanted a happy ending, but for me, a more realistic and believable event would be Bathsheba going on with her life altogether and letting Gabriel walk his own path. Now I won’t spoil his final decision, but really, Bathsheba should maintain the same work ethic we’ve seen throughout the film and not have a change of heart when Gabriel decides to leave.
And because it’s so close to the end of the film, this moment took me out of an otherwise good story. It’s not bad enough to ruin the movie, but it definitely wasn’t a move I liked. Even still, Far from the Madding Crowd is a good movie about independence and the will to prove yourself to others around you. Carey Mulligan is great in the lead role as a woman not distracted by affairs of the heart, but prefers to focus on carving out her destiny not by society’s expectations, but by her own.