I have to admit the first time I heard about this novel was a few years ago when Richard Armitage’s character in the Christmas edition of Vicars of Dibley mentioned this Thomas Hardy’s novel as his favorite. Well, I remember reaching about what that novel was about and was immediately hooked. So a headstrong woman in Victorian England attracts three very different suitors, I definitely like the sound of that.
In stories like this, casting is crucial and that’s why I approach this review more from that angle. Let me start with the heroine, Bathsheba Everdene.
I love the fact that Bathsheba is played by Carey Mulligan who’s appropriately free spirited and convincing as an independent young woman. A woman living in 19th-century England would not straddle her horse like she does when she rides, and she works the farm just as hard as any man.
When she first encountered Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer, he’s immediately smitten and it’s easy to see why. Matthias Schoenaerts, who somehow reminds me of Viggo Mortensen in this role, portrays Gabriel with deep vulnerability. He’s all doe-eyed with a hint of smolder… not the steamy kind of smolder, but one infused with such sincerity that makes it easy to root for him.
Their two lives somehow turned out drastically different — Bathsheba became wealthy when she suddenly inherited her uncle’s estate, whilst Gabriel came to a misfortune in one tragic night. The interesting dynamic of their circumstances only adds to the intrigue of their relationship, especially given how a female boss was quite a rare occurrence back in the day. I like how the film shows how Bathsheba tried to defy convention the best way she could, to make in a man’s world and be taken seriously as a farm owner.
The next suitor is more of Bathsheba’s equal in terms of economic status though he’s considerably older in age. Michael Sheen gives a dignified presence to William Boldwood, but also the appropriate sensitivity of someone who’s financially successful but one who’s been unlucky in love. The relationships between Bathsheba and these two men are especially engaging, it’s made a bit trickier by the fact that Boldwood likes Gabriel and appreciate his fervent loyalty.
I’ve mentioned in this post that the casting of the third suitor is disappointing. Sergeant Frank Troy is described as a handsome, irresponsible and impulsive young man… so I imagine an actor with devilish charisma and undeniable sex appeal for the role. Well, no offense Tom Sturridge but you ain’t that person and you certainly did NOT convince me as someone Bathsheba would risk everything for. Thus, her abrupt decision seems so out of character and doesn’t feel true.
Yes, the much-talked-about swordsmanship scene in the woods was beautifully-filmed but that’s more of a testament of Thomas Vinterberg‘s directing and his ability to create such an ethereal ambiance. I wanted to THAT scene to take my breath away, to be rendered speechless and all tingly from the sheer passion of the two characters, but it just wasn’t to be. The love scene that follows also lacks any kind of eroticism, which made the entire relationship lackluster. It also didn’t help that Sturridge just doesn’t look like a soldier or someone with a hint of danger that could tame or intimidate a woman like Bathsheba. I believe that charisma, especially of a sexual nature, is not something an actor can train for.
The way the story unfolds is rather predictable. Yes it’s based on a novel so people who’ve read it would’ve known how things turns out, but for those who haven’t, Vinterberg didn’t create any suspense that’d make us guess who Bathsheba will end up with. But Vinterberg’s strength behind the camera is creating a lush and atmospheric look that serves the story well, thanks largely to his frequent collaborator Charlotte Bruus Christensen who also did the cinematography for The Hunt.
There’s a certain melancholy in the film to be expected but it doesn’t feel corny or contrived. Mulligan and Schoenaerts who share the most screen time have a lovely chemistry… the way they steal glances every chance they get is the kind of stuff romantic dramas are made of. Apart from that, I was kind of expecting something a bit more unconventional from Vinterberg. I was so impressed by The Hunt and this one seems like a lesser film by comparison, though it’s not exactly an apples and oranges kind of comparison, but in general sense. This feels more Hollywood, safer and less edgy, but thankfully there are still things I like about it.
I have to say that the fact that sound went out for about 3-4 minutes during the final scene between Bathsheba and Gabriel! It was excruciating because it’s supposed to be a key emotional scene. The sound came back 2 minutes before the ending but still, that was awful that it happened. I’m not going to fault this film for that snafu of course, but the miscasting of Sgt. Troy is a big one for me. It did not derail the film but it prevents the film from being a truly compelling and fiery romantic drama that I had expected.
Have you seen this film? Well, what did YOU think?