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"FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD"
(2015) (Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Romantic Drama: An independent nineteenth century woman must contend with three distinct suitors who've all expressed a desire to marry her.
PLOT:
It's 1870 and Bathsheba Everdene (CAREY MULLIGAN) is a fiercely independent young woman, the result of having lost her parents at a young age. Now living several hundred miles outside of London on her aunt's farm, she meets handsome shepherd Gabriel Oak (MATTHIAS SCHOENAERTS) who owns a few hundred acres of land nearby. Quickly smitten, he proposes marriage, but despite his offer and seeming like a decent man, she turns him down.

Not long after that, a new sheepdog literally ends up driving his herd off the edge of a cliff, resulting in him having to sell his land and leave. When he comes across a barn on fire and helps put it out, he's surprised to see that it belongs to none other than Bathsheba who's recently inherited the large estate from her uncle.

With the help of her assistant, Liddy (JESSICA BARDEN), she's hoping to whip the place back into operational shape, and hires Gabriel to be her shepherd. He's given up any hope of winning over her heart, but she has a new suitor anyway in the form of William Boldwood (MICHAEL SHEEN) who owns a nearby large estate and like his predecessor, is instantly smitten with his new neighbor.

Despite his handsome offer of a good and comfortable life with him through marriage, Bathsheba likewise declines his proposal, only to find herself smitten with a new man in her life, soldier Sgt. Frank Troy (TOM STURRIDGE). Having believed he was jilted at the altar by his then love -- Fanny Robin (JUNO TEMPLE), who once worked on Bathsheba's farm under her uncle -- he's also instantly attracted to her. With so many men in her life interested in marrying her, Bathsheba must decide who to choose, if any, among them.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
I have no idea if it's still repeated in today's supposedly more enlightened world, but when I was growing up, it wasn't unusual to hear the saying "Boys don't make passes at girls who wear glasses." The notion was that spectacles signaled intelligence and that boys would rather chase after "dumb blondes" than girls with smarts.

While the saying might have diminished in use all these decades later, boys apparently still have issues with smart and especially confident girls. Case in point are some families I know where their teenage girls are attractive, yet didn't get asked out on dates. Coincidentally enough, they possessed both smarts and self-confidence, two traits that apparently drove same-aged guys toward less "intimidating" girls.

Of course, such attributes end up being attractive to guys in college and later down the road of life. But if contemporary girls still have it tough in such regards, imagine what it was like fifty years ago, or how about 141 past trips around the sun. That's when Thomas Hardy published his fourth novel (and first true literary success), "Far From the Madding Crowd."

Its young heroine, a certain Bathsheba Everdeen (who would inspire Suzanne Collins to partially name her "Hunger Games" protagonist after her) would have certainly been an oddity in the mid to late nineteenth century, what with her independent streak that's kept her single.

Yet, unlike her current day high school contemporaries, she didn't have any problem enticing would-be suitors and drawing marriage proposals. In fact, that was the problem, and that very story premise continues in this latest adaptation of Hardy's novel.

To be fully transparent, I haven't read that literary work, nor have I seen its most famous cinematic adaptation of the same name, the nearly three-hour, 1967 version starring Julie Christie in the lead role. Thus, I have no idea if said events play out in those versions as they do here, but this latest adaptation has a significant issue that will likely stand out quite a bit for some viewers, while others might overlook that in favor of the romance and (mostly) strong female character.

The issue at hand, at least for yours truly, is that most of the film feels truncated and episodic. Again, that's not basing it on any other version, but it stems from a simple observation of how screenwriter David Nicholls and director Thomas Vinterberg have things play out and move from scene to scene. Clocking in significantly shorter than its nearly half-century old predecessor, the film certainly looks terrific, be that the costumes, set and production design, and/or the gorgeous cinematography.

But the various scenes and transitions between them often feel as if material has been left out, excised, or simply overlooked. The result of that is plot developments, character behavior and such doesn't always feel believable.

And that impacts the film's most significant moments, namely that of three different men (Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge, chronologically) quickly falling for Bathsheba (a radiant Carey Mulligan) and not taking much more than a beat before proposing to her. It also doesn't explain why she ends up choosing "contestant number three" after turning down "hunky choice number one" or "I'll give you a life of comfort" option number two.

Without having read the novel or anything about it, I guess the point then and now is that love (or simply infatuation or even baser biological attraction) can make people do illogical things and make impromptu and irrational decisions regarding who they "hook up" with in life.

That might be true, but such character evolution (or, more accurately, devolution here) ends up weakening our protagonist, both in our eyes and her own. The filmmakers simply don't give us any good reason or explanation about why Bathsheba suddenly accepts and ties the knot with this third man (beyond some "swordplay foreplay," if you will, that degrades her even more if that's all it took to "put a ring on it").

A script tweak here or there might have solved that issue (or at least lessened its severity). And diehard romantics might not mind the dropping of the smart, self-reliant modus operandi if they're of the "damn the independence, full speed ahead on the Love Boat" mentality. While that change in behavior does provide for some additional dramatic material, I simply didn't like what it did to the protagonist and what made her unique, especially for her temporal and cultural setting.

None of which is meant to imply that the film is awful by any means, as it's certainly easy enough to watch and the performances range from solid to strong. And again, everything (the cast, costumes, trappings and locale) is pretty to behold. I just wish all involved would have taken a chance and kept our female lead strong-willed throughout. At least they didn't initially give her glasses only to take them off and suddenly play ditsy or dumb. Decent, but nothing great, "Far From the Madding Crowd" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed April 23, 2015 / Posted May 1, 2015


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