Set against the beautiful backdrop of rural Dorset, Carey Mulligan excels in Thomas Vinterburg’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Victorian novel.
Hardy’s classic accounts the independent Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan) inheriting her uncle’s farm and the various suitors she encounters along the way: sheep farmer Gabriel Oak; wealthy William Boldwood; and unscrupulous soldier Frank Troy.
Having refused Oak and Boldwood, she eventually chooses the former military man as her husband when wooed by his infamous sword wielding display.
On typical form, Hardy’s tale goes beyond the sunny, sweeping countryside to reveal stormy relationships and moments of bleakness which this adaptation draws out remarkably well. Oak’s sheep run off the rocky cliff face early on, tragically destroying his livelihood and subsequently determining his later farm work under the supervision of Bathsheba. Elsewhere, a warmly-lit dinner is tinged blue when Oak and Boldwood, played wonderfully by Matthias Schoenaerts and Michael Sheen, glance furtively across the table as the woman they so desperately want sings of loss and love.
Bathsheba’s eventual husband is exposed as a reckless gambler, prone to impropriety and outbursts of rage under his dashing, scarlet uniform. When his former sweetheart Fanny Robin (Juno Temple) dies in a ditch, pregnant and destitute, the discovery of her body grimly unearths his past life and drives a further rift between the newlyweds.
David Nicholls, the writer responsible for One Day, Starter for Ten, and adaptation of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles for the BBC, does a good job of condensing the epic story. However, at times, this works against him when the role of Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge) feels somewhat hurried and cut short, his character relegated to a stock villain rather than the more fully developed individual we see in the longer, iconic version starring Julie Christie.
Mulligan shines as the headstrong heroine. Upon addressing her new work force, she declares ‘from now on you have a mistress, not a master, and it is my intention to astonish you all’.
Where the camera quickly flits away from Christie having uttered the same line in the 1967 film, we linger on Mulligan who places her head on a desk with a winning smile to evoke both her disbelief and keen spirit to do things right. She confidently strides into a room filled with men, grain in hand to sell and barter for five pounds a quarter, while, elsewhere, she discloses her true feelings to Oak merely through her gaze.
Happily, the two eventually do end up together, yet in not-so-happy circumstances when Troy is shot impulsively by Boldwood after a lavish party. The film is at its finest in the concluding scene when, bathed in golden lens-flare, Oak and Bathsheba share their first kiss. For most of this production characters seem utterly alone when feelings are not reciprocated, but here Vinterburg ensures the notion happiness is better shared comes across in one final flourish.