Writers: Thomas Hardy (novel), David Nicholls (screenplay)
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Mattias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge
Running Time: 119 mins
The lowdown: A quality combination of Dogme director Thomas Vinterberg and class act Carey Mulligan turns Thomas Hardy’s nineteenth century novel into a thoroughly modern romance. Gorgeous scenery and sensual imagery transport Dorset back to its glorious haymaking heyday. Spritely in pace without losing its sweeping scope, there’s no time to parley in the barley – this is period drama for the impatient.
The full verdict: Excluding contemporary 2010 reworking Tamara Drewe, the last big screen version of Thomas Hardy’s classic tale of love, passion and animal husbandry was released nearly fifty years ago. John Schlesinger’s recently reissued 1967 adaptation is deservedly praised but now best remembered for the incendiary chemistry between ex-lovers Julie Christie and Terence Stamp.
A fresh interpretation of the original text was long overdue. At just under the two hour mark it’s considerably more compact than its predecessor but no less affecting. Danish director Thomas Vinterberg retains the storytelling simplicity of his Dogme roots and approaches Hardy’s South West stomping ground with an outsider’s keen eye.
Carey Mulligan may not possess Christie’s translucent beauty but her intelligent interpretation of Hardy’s headstrong heroine Bathsheba Everdene may prove to be the more memorable. Whether demonstrating firm, buttoned-up business acumen or locking eyes with an admirer over the sheep dip, Mulligan imbues the feisty farm owner with capability and vulnerability.
For Bathsheba is a contradictory character; an orphaned heiress who refuses to become ‘somebody’s property’ while simultaneously believing she needs to be tamed. Failing to understand she requires a partner, not a conqueror, this opinion proves fatal for the three men vying for her affections: loyal sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Schoenaerts), affluent older man William Boldwood (Sheen) and swashbuckling soldier Sergeant Frank Troy (Sturridge).
Screenwriter David Nicholls (One Day, Tess of The D’Urbervilles mini-series) does well to emphasise her suitor’s differences without reducing them to cliché.
All moustachioed machismo, Sturridges’ Sergeant evokes the epitome of romantic love but his flash and swagger mask reckless immaturity. The pale, pretty actor will no doubt add to his legion of adoring fans with his physical, fervid performance.
Exuding earthy appeal, Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) uses his size wisely to convey a man as sturdy as his name suggests. Recent intonation offenders take note; the beefy Belgian wisely adopts a neutral accent rather than attempting full-on farmer.
Dramatic encounters are peppered with unexpected and welcome moments of humour, particularly when Bathsheba receives repeated proposals involving the promise of a piano. Sheen uses self deprecating wit to lend his lovelorn Boldwood dignity, a rictus grin in the face of rejection a masterclass in clenched anguish.
While Vinterberg doesn’t skimp on sheep-spotted hills and sun-dappled meadows, the brisk pace leaves little time for lengthy cornfield confabs. He replaces expositive exchanges with revelatory set pieces – a plaintive duet of ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’ exposes a moment of beautifully empathic emotion.
Although overly fond of lens flare, the visuals are luscious and arresting; this is especially evident when Sergeant Troy stuns Bathsheba with sexy swordplay – his dazzling scarlet and black uniform in sharp contrast with the verdant forest.
Whether this incarnation will be viewed as definitive remains to be seen but those averse to bonnets and ballrooms should prepare for a pleasant surprise.