Thomas Vinterberg’s Far from the Madding Crowd is a fine period drama with a great cast and flawless mise en scène. It is based on Thomas Hardy’s novel of the same name, and this is the fourth film adaptation. The main role, Bathsheba Everdene, brilliantly performed by Carey Mulligan, has been played by the likes of Julie Kristie. So, one might expect that there is nothing more to see than the improvements which different actors, music, costume design, and cinematography might bring to this time-honoured classic. Fortunately, Vinterberg is able to prove this assumption quite wrong. The director manages to make a period drama like no other, whilst staying within the limits set by the genre. In a sense, Vinterberg is showing that it is still possible to direct period dramas, a notoriously time-worn genre, with difference. He proves that directing a period drama does not require the absence of individual style and a unique sensibility. This is a subtle, yet a great accomplishment which is very likely to be overlooked.
The key to his success lies with the subtle balance Vinterberg strikes between familiarity and unfamiliarity. Directing a period drama is a tricky business. It is different from adopting a classic in that it has to be confined within the intended time and the place of the original work. For example, if you are adopting a literary classic, you can present it as a period drama, or you can transport the story and the characters into another period. Theoretically, one can direct Faust as a SCi-Fi movie, if so desired. On the other hand, a period drama is restricted to the specific time and the place in history wherein the story is set. Moreover, a period drama, whether it is based on a literary classic or a contemporary best seller, the way the story progresses strictly adheres to the style of the 19th century novel; the story follows a linear temporary order, and it is generally told through the third-person narrative in which the author assumes the role of the omniscient God who is the only person with a clear sense of what is happening, and thus the sole source of the objective account.
For the director of a period drama, these rules are compulsive. If you break these rules, the movie is no longer recognisable as a period drama. The audience of this genre is as unforgiving as a corset. Since there are many period dramas in the history of cinema, we are accustomed to the way it is generally presented. Whilst the interpretation of a character might give some liberty to the actors, a director is completely tied to the spaciotemporal framework of the story. We are also accustomed to the 19th century mode of storytelling that it has become the default mode of writing, especially in the English speaking world. This generally constraints a director to such a degree that there is no room left for a director to leave their mark as an auteur. In short, a period drama is all about refinement and skills, not about originality.
Vinterberg follows these rules well enough that the movie remains a clearly recognisable period drama. His direction follows the linear temporal order, and there is nothing that strikes the audience as unfitting. Additionally he assembled a great cast, and they deliver. Carey Mulligan shines as Bathsheba Everdeen, and once again she proves that she is one of the finest actors of her generation. Indeed, her performance is one of the key ingredients to the success of this movie. As the leading actor, she represents her character from a different time-period with freshness. Whilst she reminds us of the gulf between our contemporary sensibility about genders and that of the19th century England, she makes the story relevant to us by breathing a new life into the character. It is Mulligan's presence, with her proven acting skill, that makes tremendous difference in this latest adaptation. She is someone from a distant time period, yet her struggle, taken out of the exact context, is also real to the contemporary sensibility. In any case, what Mulligan show us is that we need to be keenly aware of two elements to fully appreciate a good period drama: respecting an unfamiliar sensibility from the distant past, and embracing a familiar subject to which we can relate. Still, if this is the only positive aspect of the film, what Vintergerg achieves with this film is only a mere refinement over the previous adaptations.
However, there is nothing further from the truth. To make a point, I should draw our attention to another aspect of this movie’s understated success: a foreign element. There are two artists who represent a foreign element in this quintessential English classic: Vinterberg and Matthias Schoenaerts. Schoenaerts offers a strong performance as Gabriel Oak, and he can be easily accepted as an Englishman. Yet, there is a certain foreignness about his look that makes his Gabriel really stands out from his fellow actors in this movie. It works wonderfully in sculpting this character not merely as a down-to-earth man of strength, but as someone who is very different from other characters. His devotion to Bathsheba is selfless, and as his name suggests, there is a certain pure quality to the way he carries himself. In this sense, this character stands apart from the rest with his keen sense of morality, and casting a talented foreign actor for this role proved to be a wise decision. Thus, Schoenaerts contributes no small part to the success of this movie.
The foreign element Schoenaerts brings with him to the screen works wonders with Vinterberg’s direction. The landscape of rural 19th century England is captured with impeccable skill, yet, through Vinterberg’s eyes, this land at times appears completely foreign. The way he captures the terrible beauties of the cliff, the gentle afternoon in the grassland, or the beam of the sunlight that silhouette the lovers, transfixes us. Whilst it is the mark of a true artist to be able to capture the beauty of ordinary things with arresting freshness, I suspect that there is more to this phenomenon here. It is Vinterberg’s foreign eyes that enable to transform the all-too-familiar landscape of Victorian England into the view with unearthly qualities.
The key to this effect lies with Vinterberg’s Nordic sensibility to light. Although it is evident in the way he handles artificial lights, such as a lantern in the woods, it most powerfully manifests with his handling of natural light. As in other Nordic directors’ works, such as Bergman’s and Skjoldbjaerg’s, the natural light, and its lack thereof, dictates the screen in this movie. It is a kind of sensibility that would be cultivated by someone who was born and raised in a region where the cold and the darkness persist for the much of the year. Whilst the film blissfully plays with the light in its English moments, the natural light reveals its power with it’s starkness in its Nordic moments. Remarkably, Vinterberg uses the force of light like the key motives in a complex symphony. Since he mixed these Nordic moments with English ones with such skill, the distinction of his accomplishment in this aspect might go easily unnoticed. At first glance, this movie presents itself as an accomplished period drama, and there is nothing wrong with this assessment. Yet, if you really care to appreciate this film in its full capacity, to realise what kind of an accomplishment Vinterberg attained with this period drama, one should pay special attention to his use of natural light as a mean to bring much needed new life to this classic.
It might take a few viewings to fully appreciate every virtue of this movie. Yet I assure you: it is worth it.