"I'd hate to become some man's property," the forthright Bathsheba Everdene says to her gently spurned suitor. It's 1870 in Dorset, England, and despite her penniless status, Bathsheba values her independence above everything, a nontraditional mindset that will serve her well when an unexpected inheritance bequeaths her a large farm.
But over the course of Danish director Thomas Vinterberg's earthy yet swooning adaptation of Thomas Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd," our heroine will learn that even financial security won't assuage Victorian society's demands that she snag a husband. In fact, Bathsheba finds that men are now drawn to her free spirit as well as her money, but usually they're looking to control both.
Carey Mulligan (2013's "The Great Gatsby") stars as Bathsheba, her playful smirk doing nothing to hide the obvious gratification she gets out of rebelling against patriarchal notions. And though Bathsheba makes gradual headway in matters of business, the romance part is trickier. Despite an unmistakable spark with quiet shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), Bathsheba rejects his impulsive proposal, and then their reversals of fortune render a match unsuitable anyway. (That hand-over-the-mouth sheep scene is positively gut-wrenching.) The humorless but wealthy William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) also sets his cap on Bathsheba -- his middle-aged practicality positing the union as a transaction between equals, but we soon sense that he's secretly trying to protect his heart.
Bathsheba announces early on that the only way she'll marry is if the man can tame her -- the true meaning of which becomes clear when the dashing Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) shows up, unsubtly thrusting his sword through the air at a horned-up Bathsheba. Add a pinch of secrets, a smattering of coincidence, and a soupçon of things unsaid, and "Far from the Madding Crowd" unfolds more as a satisfying frock-flick romance than a portrait of a headstrong woman railing against male convention.
But it's a little deceptive. Like an Austen leading lady, Bathsheba is more concerned with what she wants for herself than what others expect or require, and not for nothing is the "Hunger Games" protagonist named after her.
Vinterberg, you may remember, co-founded the barebones filmmaking manifesto Dogme 95 (check out his excellent 1998 drama "Festen," also known as Dogme #1), though he hasn't had much success with English-language films until now.
"Far from the Madding Crowd" is exquisitely crafted, from the rustic art direction and Craig Armstrong's gorgeously evocative score, to David Nicholls' knowing script. But it's the luscious cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen -- she also shot Vinterberg's 2012 Oscar nominee "The Hunt" -- that sets the film's vaguely erotic tone, with magic-hour golds, pastoral greens, and carnal scarlets.
And the performances are nearly impeccable, with only Sturridge striking a false note as the underdeveloped Troy, who comes across as little more than a plot device. The stellar Sheen almost walks off with the film as the halting, melancholy Boldwood, his delicate desperation hinting at both a sad past and the fear of a lonely future.
Belgium's Schoenaerts is a sloe-eyed dreamboat, with a laconic intensity that punctuates his infrequent sentences. He's more than matched by the gifted Mulligan, who beautifully embodies Bathsheba's demands and desires while doing feisty justice to one of literature's great feminists.