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'Far From the Madding Crowd' buries a soap opera story under gorgeous cinematography and excellent a
Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdeen in Far From the Madding Crowd. - photo by Josh Terry
Based on Thomas Hardys novel, director Thomas Vinterbergs Far From the Madding Crowd is a gorgeous, well-produced and well-acted film. But its story will likely produce eye rolls from all but the most idealistic of 21st century audiences.

The Victorian-era tale tells the story of a wealthy woman who juggles three suitors as she struggles to run an inherited farm. Think of it as a 19th-century version of TVs The Bachelorette.

Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is a fiercely independent woman who seems to inspire immediate marriage proposals from everyone she meets. Seriously, if you think 21st century dating is an endangered practice, weve got nothing on these folks.

First up is Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a shepherd who proposes early, gets shot down, then winds up taking a job on Everdenes farm after his dog runs his flock off a cliff. For Oak, humble pie is on the menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) owns the farm next door and has grown lonely in his advancing middle age. He can offer comfort and stability, but Everdene doesnt want a marriage of convenience.

Finally, she meets Sgt. Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), a soldier who was jilted by his bride-to-be. Miss Everdene is little more than a rebound for Troy, but hes confident and good-looking, so naturally she marries him.

On a symbolic level, its an interesting idea. Each suitor represents a different quality, and together they make the perfect man. Oak is the humble hard-worker, Boldwood is the wealthy provider and Troy is the confident one who can sweep her off her feet.

But Everdene can only have one husband, and even after selecting Troy, there is no simple happily ever after for our protagonist. The ensuing twists and turns of the story make Far From the Madding Crowd come off like a more dignified version of a Nicholas Sparks film.

Everdene is an especially confounding character. Early on she is presented as a kind of proto-feminist role model. During one conversation, she suggests that it is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.

That line is taken straight from the book that, remember, was written by a man. But even as she fights for respect and independence, insisting that she has no desire to have a husband or be a mans property, time and time again circumstances betray her character to an array of classic female stereotypes that undermine any points she may have scored.

Still, the film has its merits. Mulligan shines as Miss Everdene. Schoenaerts is well suited as the strong, silent Oak, and its fun to see Sturridge in a role that is the virtual polar opposite of the character he played in 2009s Pirate Radio. But as easy as it is to sympathize with Oak, the films most forlorn character is Sheens Boldwood, a well-intended suitor who draws the shortest straw.

If you can forgive the soap opera story, Madding Crowd is a beautiful film, making the most of its striking British landscapes. Charlotte Bruus Christensens cinematography alone is able to supply a romantic and inspiring tone that Hardys story fumbles with.

Since the novel itself is the heart of the trouble, its hard to be too critical of such a well-produced film. But for all its strength of performance and cinematography, Far From the Madding Crowd needs to be viewed with a forgiving lens.

Far From the Madding Crowd is rated PG-13 for some violence and mild sexual content.
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