The latest film adaptation of “Far From the Madding Crowd” will delight fans of period dramas. It checks off the required boxes with solid acting, gorgeous cinematography and all the frustrating, glorious emotional restraint that you expect from a romance set in Victorian England. The only thing more beautiful than the sweeping shots of lush landscapes are the exquisite dresses worn by beloved protagonist Bathsheba Everdene.
Carey Mulligan plays Bathsheba, a woman of no means living on her aunt’s farm in late 1800s England. She’s not your average lady, given that marriage isn’t her priority, even though the right husband could help her lot in life. So when a handsome sheep farmer by the name of Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) proposes to her, she says no. They’d make a pretty pair, but alas, Bathsheba isn’t ready to settle down. Soon after, Bathsheba moves away, having inherited a large estate, including a farm and some fortune, from a relative.
But as fate would have it, the two cross paths again. In one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, an untrained sheepdog drives Gabriel’s entire flock over a cliff — and suddenly he is in need of a job. So Bathsheba hires him. There still seems to be something between these two, leading us to wonder if they might get together after all. But savvy businesswoman that she is, Bathsheba doesn’t need a human resources department to tell her that dating an employee would be a bad idea.
Besides, Gabriel has serious competition in the courtship department. First, there’s the older William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). A wealthy bachelor, he’s stern and reticent, but his reluctance to flatter Bathsheba only intrigues her more. He owns the farm next door, so, practically speaking, a marriage would make sense. But there’s no passion: That comes in the form of Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge) a young, smooth-talking sergeant who really impresses Bathsheba with his swordplay — literally.
The pacing feels slightly off as these relationships unfold, and there’s little space to explore them in depth — except for the growing friendship between Gabriel and Bathsheba. But when adapting a novel into a film, time is always of the essence and at least the key events of the plot — a fire, a sheep plague, a shooting — are all here.
Meanwhile, the acting is splendid, especially from Mulligan. The British actress has been touted as the next “it girl” for years, but she hasn’t reached Jennifer Lawrence-caliber stardom just yet, possibly because she seems to very carefully select her roles and has only starred in a handful of (very good) movies in recent years. But she has a delightful and commanding screen presence that serves her well in the role of the complicated, willful character at the center of Thomas Hardy’s least depressing novel.
Thomas Vinterberg, the Danish director behind the Oscar-nominated foreign film “The Hunt,” teamed up with screenwriter David Nicholls for this project, and the latter knows his way around an adaptation, having worked on the “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” miniseries in 2008 and “Great Expectations” in 2012. Their partnership works well, with powerful visuals and the best of Hardy’s text.
If there’s one complaint about “Far From the Madding Crowd,” it’s that the chemistry between Mulligan and Schoenaerts doesn’t totally spark. But then, how much pizzazz does one really expect from Victorian England?
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sexuality and violence. 119 minutes.