‘Far From the Madding Crowd’

Far From the Madding Crowd On Set

"You can tell Carey enjoys that baby lamb. She’s a farm chick; she even has a farm." Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

Since Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” was published in 1874, it’s been filmed for the screen on several occasions, including John Schlesinger’s three-hour 1967 epic starring Julie Christie. When it arrives in theaters May 1, the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s lean, quick-witted version will be the fourth such adaptation. “Is it really?” says Vinterberg, almost audibly wincing. “I’m still trying to pretend this is a one-off love affair between me and Thomas Hardy.” It’s not hard to see why filmmakers, more than a century later, are still falling for the story of Bathsheba Everdene, a young, hardheaded beauty who comes of age after inheriting a farm in the English countryside. Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) is a startlingly modern female character, all the more so considering the neo-Victorian era in which she was created. She’s delightfully prone to displays of nerve that leave men speechless, like early on in the film, when she receives a marriage proposal from Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a shepherd and romantic presence as steady as his name: “I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if it only meant I didn’t have to have a husband as well,” she informs him. “Mr. Oak, I’m too independent for you.”

“Either Hardy was a visionary,” Vinterberg says, “or life as a woman hasn’t changed over the last 140 years. Probably a little of both.” To match such a contemporary leading woman, the director and his screenwriter David Nicholls worked to update the rest of the book. “We wanted to stay humble to Hardy, and yet make it watchable to a younger audience.” They modernized the dialogue without forgoing its melody or originality, a process not unlike literary translation. (Vinterberg’s father is a translator.) Vinterberg maintained the sense of sweeping drama and intrigue of Bathsheba’s dalliances with Oak, the moneyed older neighbor Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and the devilish cad Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge), but shot mostly with natural light on location in Wessex to avoid any excessive staginess. And the period dress in the film is not so different from certain pieces one might find in menswear shops on the Lower East Side of Manhattan today. “We really set out to get beneath the surface of the costumes and period to get to the story,” Vinterberg says. “In a sense, we wanted to get past the frocks and bonnets.”