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'Far From the Madding Crowd' is fresh and far from Hardy lite

'Crowd' stars Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene, who inherits her uncle's farm and is determined to have it succeed. She is courted by three suitors, including her neighbor (Michael Sheen).

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    Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge) goes a-courtin’ in ‘Far From the Madding Crowd,’ and gets the girl – before being revealed as a cad.
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The heroine’s name in “Far From the Madding Crowd,” adapted from Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, is Bathsheba Everdene, and she is as formidable as that sounds. (That “Everdene,” by the way, was appropriated by Suzanne Collins for Katniss’s surname – different spelling – in “The Hunger Games” books, a somewhat lesser novelistic achievement.)

Carey Mulligan plays Bathsheba, a Victorian country girl who inherits her uncle’s farm and becomes fiercely determined to make a success of it. She cuts a striking figure in her tight brown leather jackets and soon attracts the attention of a trio of disparate suitors.

First there is the farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), appropriately named, who is a rooted, loamy type. His marriage proposal to her is rejected. (His relative low-born status doesn’t help.) “I’d want someone to tame me,” she tells him, although he seems eminently qualified. He ends up sticking around anyway to oversee the estate. 

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Next up is William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), Bathsheba’s wealthy, older next-door neighbor, who is more wooden than bold. He also impulsively proposes to her, and is politely but peremptorily rejected. 

That leaves Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge), a dapper soldier who parades about in his bright red coat. His idea of foreplay, when Bathsheba quiveringly agrees to meet him in a dark forest, is to slice off a lock of her hair with his sword. 

Regrettably, Troy is the one she marries, with predictable consequences. (Predictable, that is, to everyone but Bathsheba.) We are supposed to think that Troy is still pining over a lost love, but that’s not really what we see. He’s caddish when the chips are down.

Unlike most of Hardy’s novels, “Far From the Madding Crowd,” despite the requisite doominess, is more uplifting than most, and perhaps this is what attracted the director, Thomas Vinterberg. He is quoted in the film’s press notes as saying: “I think we need this kind of story right now because we live in very cynical times and we need a story that is about something else.” 

This may strike too therapeutic a tone to do justice to Hardy, but the film doesn’t play down the fatedness of Bathsheba’s largely self-inflicted ordeal. Somewhat like Scarlett O’Hara, she is willful, and, like Scarlett, she resists the attractions of suitors who might “tame” her. She is intended to be something of a feminist precursor standing athwart the Victorian patriarchy, but, to the film’s credit, it doesn’t soft-pedal Bathsheba’s frailties. 

Written by David Nicholls, the movie structures Hardy’s narrative around the enveloping connection between Gabriel and Bathsheba. At times this makes the movie resemble a high-toned version of those teen pics about the girl who doesn’t realize her best male friend, silently adoring, is actually Mr. Right. But because Mulligan’s Bathsheba is such an encompassing portrait, I never felt as if I was watching a “type.” Bathsheba, with all her warring impulses, is ferociously her own woman.

It can’t quite be said that the men are equally un-“typed.” To some extent, this is intentional. They are the fixed points about which Bathsheba revolves. Gabriel is the man of the soil, William is the lovelorn landowner, and Troy is the seductive dissembler. But even here, especially in the case of William, there are complexities. Sheen’s performance is daring; this moneyed man progresses from ardent suitor to deluded wreck, and the trajectory makes perfect emotional sense.

There have been three previous movie adaptations of this material, including the 1967 John Schlesinger movie starring Julie Christie, but Vinterberg approaches the novel with fresh, if somewhat becalmed, eyes. The result is far from Hardy Lite. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for some sexuality and violence.)

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