Back in the 1980s, Merchant Ivory, a film production company founded by producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, came to prominence as an art house hit maker. It churned out a number of elaborate period pieces set in the vast English countryside. Those films often starred Emma Thompson in roles in which she played women who struggled with the stereotypes of women that existed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Far From the Madding Crowd, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel, feels like one of those films. Thanks to a solid performance by Carey Mulligan, who comes across a bit like a modern-day Emma Thompson, the film does the romantic novel justice.
The story centers on Bathsheba (Mulligan), a poor farmer living next to hard-working sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). When the two develop a friendship, Gabriel does the logical thing — he asks Bathsheba to marry him. She kindly turns him down, telling him she's not really interested in marrying any man. Soon after, their fortunes, however, head in the opposite direction. She inherits a massive farm and mansion and he loses his flock in a freak accident. By coincidence, he winds up at her farm and she puts him in charge of her flock.
There's underlying tension: Gabriel knows he's subservient but still has feelings for Bathsheba. On the other hand, Bathsheba entertains other potential suitors, including socially awkward but wealthy bachelor William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and often asks Gabriel for his opinions on the matters. Ouch! When she winds up marrying a philandering sergeant (Tom Sturridge) who likes to perform tricks with his sword, Gabriel is put in an extremely awkward position, thanks to having warned her against getting involved with the guy. And when he turns out to be an even bigger buffoon than anyone expected, Gabriel has to refrain from saying, "I told you so."
Anyone who's read the book will know how the movie concludes. And even if you haven't read the book, it's not hard to figure out what the outcome will be. Mulligan is terrific as the strong-willed Bathsheba and Schoenaerts makes Gabriel into the underdog that you find yourself rooting for. Sheen isn't in the film much, but he gives a good performance as well as a man caught in the middle between Gabriel, whom he befriends, and Bathsheba, whom he courts. Sturridge is the one weak link as he hams it up a little too much.