In a year that has already seen multiple movies that empower women, it is refreshing to see a period film that not only follows suit, but does so while still adhering to traditional period tropes. Thomas Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd is a film all about independence and at what point it should be sacrificed for something more dependent. Using a strong female character, played effectively by Carey Mulligan, the film takes issue with historic expectations and toys with what it means to be a woman in 19th century England.
Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdene, an independent and adamant farm owner who inherits her uncle’s land after his passing and soon employs one of three love interests throughout the film. Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a sheep farmer who loses his entire flock and is forced to sell his land and finds work as the shepherd for Bathsheba’s estate. Oak winds up being the constant in Bathsheba’s life, who confesses his love for her early on only to be denied. Yet he maintains loyalty to her.
Meanwhile, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) is the second suitor, who owns an estate next door to Everdene, and he will offer her anything so long as she will be his wife. And then there is Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), a sergeant who finds himself infatuated with Everdene. These three men act as different levels of required dependence from Bathsheba. Far from the Madding Crowd explores the notion of compromise and whether a woman could be completely self-reliant in the 19th century. The film seems rather safe as it progresses, and never really breaks away from its hook of an independent woman struggling to maintain independence. Yet beyond its precautions, Vinterberg has successfully tweaked enough to make the film stand as a criticism of the period, as opposed to a celebration.
More often than not, a woman is not allowed choice within films set in this period. By giving power to Bathsheba, she is already in a better position than would be expected from a film of this kind. With that power comes decisions, some of which may seem easy to make, but ultimately end up being the wrong decision. Oak consistently tells her that he believes she will make the right decision regarding any of her choices. Oak plays a mentor-like figure that helps guide Everdene through the film as she struggles with the power she has. She cannot simply dismiss men outright, and that is what Far from the Madding Crowd brings to the table that is unique from a feminist perspective as well as still a criticism of the often misogynistic Victorian period film.
The complacent nature of this genre are the parts that hold the film back from greatness. Its criticisms are hidden beneath the surface of the film, which often falls into generic Victorian love triangle territory. David Nicholls’s script is only accentuated by beautiful imagery and great performances by the cast. Everything else feels formulaic and quaint. The characters you believe will be together, end up together, and the ones who don’t are brought to logical conclusions. There is your one soap opera-level twist near the end of the movie, but it barely gets time to impact the viewer. However, it is a scene which brings together the entire film, highlighting these three men and what they offer Everdene, while remaining subtly effective.
That is the best way to praise Far from the Madding Crowd: subtly effective. It doesn’t beat you over the head with what it is trying to say, and it doesn’t make its romance plot ever feel boring. On the surface though, it is merely a comforting romantic film set in Victorian England. Fortunately, there is plenty to uncover within its seemingly generic plot and setting.