Danish filmmaker and Dogme 95 refugee Thomas Vinterberg directed about half a dozen features, a few TV movies, and a handful of music videos in between the time he made his 1998 breakthrough The Celebration and his 2012 "comeback" The Hunt, but he's gained such a stern, quiet confidence since then that his new stuff feels like the work of a new man. The Hunt was a study in suspicion and cruelty in which a small-town schoolteacher's life and reputation are destroyed by the innocent lie of a child, and Vinterberg tills similar soil in his adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1874 serial Far from the Madding Crowd, creating another small-town hothouse where propriety is challenged and where everyone exists on the razor's edge of fate.
Far from the Madding Crowd may or may not be the equal of The Hunt, but it's probably the more impressive achievement — a beautifully mounted, fiercely intelligent, bracingly alive literary adaptation that remains an unabashed crowd-pleaser.
In lesser hands, this story of a beautiful female landowner who finds herself torn between a decent but destitute sheep herder and the more "acceptable" suitors who wish to possess her could have been stodgy Masterpiece Theatre or schlocky soap opera. Instead, Vinterberg's film works on myriad levels. It's objectively gorgeous while also feeling inhabited and tactile; it's a feminist fable that never panders or proselytizes; and it's an actor's showcase without an ounce of Oscar-moment ham.
The luminous Carey Mulligan stars as Bathsheba Everdene, a single woman "too accustomed to independence" who lives alone with her horses in the English countryside. Riding through the woods one day, she catches the eye of Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a meager farmer and capable sheep herder, and right away he shows up at her doorstep with a baby lamb and a proposal of marriage. Gabriel mistakes Bathsheba's independence for destitution and desperation, and assumes that she'll leap into his protective arms, but despite an obvious attraction she rebuffs him, claiming to want a man who will "tame" her instead.
In a heartbeat, their fortunes flip: Through no fault of his own, Gabriel loses his entire flock of sheep (a sequence that's both pointedly graphic and hauntingly restrained), while Bathsheba inherits a bustling farm from a distant uncle. Installed as lady of the house, the headstrong Bathsheba runs the business like a man, and she even hires a homeless Gabriel after he saves her barn from a raging fire. Despite the inverted power dynamic in their relationship, the laconic Gabriel continues to hold feelings for Bathsheba, even as she cruelly baits the attention of a stuffy aristocrat (Michael Sheen), and falls for a dashing but damaged soldier (Tom Sturridge).
Mulligan gives a marvelous performance, her mix of delicate features and diamond-hard inner strength a perfect fit for the complex and willful Bathsheba, who finds herself stuck between duties and expectations, wits and desires. She's matched well by Schoenaerts, a brooding Belgian actor best known for his role opposite Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone; he gazes at Mulligan with a look that is simultaneously steely and shy. If you're telling a story about repressed desire where the emotions all have to come out through the eyes, you couldn't cast two better actors than Mulligan and Schoenaerts.
Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen also shot The Hunt, mostly in naturally lit, washed-out hues, but here she gets to run wild with the color palette. The landscapes are breathtaking and the images are lush and painterly, but Christensen also makes stunning use of close-ups and handheld camera, and gets a natural light effect in a lot of the shots. If there's a quibble with the film, it's that you can occasionally feel it catch its breath, the sprawling narrative cinched too tight to accommodate an exactly 120-minute running time. It's a testament to Vinterberg and editor Claire Simpson (Platoon) that the film moves with such relentlessness and precision, without a wasted frame or gratuitous flourish. That sense of time slipping away faster than you think actually makes an ideal tempo for a film about the tragedy of unseized opportunities.