Feel free to leave the pearls at home and keep your pinky on your tea glass for Far From The Madding Crowd, because once you strip away the Masterpiece Theater title and gilded plumage, it plays out very much like a Victorian Era game of F*ck, Marry, Kill. It’s not exactly the avant-garde cinema you’d expect from an original co-founder of the Dogme 95 collective like Thomas Vinterberg (who always seemed sane and a little boring compared to Von Trier), but not as dull as you’d expect of an adaptation of mid-19th century English literature either. Which is an achievement of sorts, but also, you know… no one’s forcing you to choose this era.
F*ck, Marry, Kill, is of course that classic game of hypothetical dalliances, and the lass faced with romantic choices is the wonderfully named Bathsheba Everdeen, your prototypical headstrong young maiden, chafing against the class and social restrictions into which she was born and her own fine corsetry (played here by your prototypical Carey Mulligan). Over the course of the film, Everdeen must choose between three suitors: F*ck, in the person of swashbuckling, vaguely-rapey, sword-fighting aristocrat, Sgt. Frank Troy (played by a mustachioed Tom Sturridge); Marry, aka super sexy sheep whisperer and farm hand extraordinaire, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts from Bullhead); and Kill, spineless, groveling, rich boy-man William Boldwood (Michael Sheen, now with a beard). Along the way, she brazenly (but elegantly) rebels against traditional gender roles (the movie opens with a shot of her on horseback, switching from side-saddle to western, frilly English hymen be damned), smiles through tragedy, sings a few songs, and cries. I mean, it stars Carey Mulligan, of course there’s going to be crying and singing. Sometimes with stray tendrils of hair dangling dramatically in front of her face. So much moxie though, she keeps singing and crying like she doesn’t even notice.
I never read the 1874 Thomas Hardy novel on which it was based, but insomuch as the the film plays out like a choice between “F*ck, Marry, Kill,” it makes sense to say that it’s at its most compelling whenever F*ck is in the picture, and pretty dull whenever he’s not. In the midst of all the yearning and pining and perceived slights and words left gallantly unsaid, F*ck is the wild card, the only character who speaks boldly and acts on his whims instead of talking in circles and staring off into the distance.
He’s a breath of fresh air – drinking too much, singing lewd songs at formal occasions, brandishing his sword at sheep and ladies alike – it’s just a shame that there’s almost an hour of movie before he shows up to finger Bathsheba in a forest. There’s a reason Downton Abbey made the period piece cool again. While the lifestyle Downton depicts is slow (and fancy), the story isn’t. Skip 15 minutes of Downton Abbey and you miss like six plot points. A servant gets framed for murder, the hot sister falls for an Irish commie, old man ironsides is boning a maid… stuff happens! Lots of it! The first half of Far From the Madding Crowd, by contrast, consists of: Gabe Oak (Marry) has a meet-cute with wild college girl Bathsheba, who lives with an aunt or something. Oak proposes, but Bathsheba, intrigued though she is, she’s still a modern, independent lady and turns him down. Then all his sheep die, Bathsheba inherits a dead uncle’s estate, and Oak shows up, hat in hand, to be her stable boy. Boom! Reversal of fortunes!
That all basically happens in the trailer, and the two spend the next 45 minutes or so chastely flirting and doing farm work. If you were hoping for an S&M-style, “Polish my saddle, stable boy!” scene, you’ll be left wanting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a total loss. Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s sumptuous cinematography is never hard to look at, and Matthias Schoenaerts is enjoyable yet again in a role that seems completely different from any of his others, in which he was also brilliant. Still, it’s hard not to want to yell, “Hey, can you repressed English A-holes just screw already? I got stuff to do.”
There’s so much yearning and pining and plotting and stiff upper lips – it feels like Victorians the way they wanted to see themselves more than Victorians as they actually were. Don’t tell me people walking around on Gropecunt Lane were these paragons of chaste virtue. At one point, Bathsheba tells one of her boys that she’s never been kissed before, and it was all I could do not to shout “Oh come on!” She was a country aristocrat pushing 30, don’t tell me she never tried to get it in with a farmhand before. Aside from F*ck, the only character in touch with his id, the characters are constantly engaged in some act of self-sabotaging gallantry. There’s an element social commentary there, sure, but it’s mostly commentary on the Victorian era, and more importantly, watching it happen over and over again gets repetitive. They love each other, but they just can’t get it together! Same thing happened in A Lot Like Love, with Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet.
God bless F*ck though, he single-handedly makes things tolerable. By the way, I think this whole movie would be inifnitely more entertaining experienced with an interactive, Jerry Springer-style audience, shouting “OH SNAP” and “OH NO SHE DI’IN’T!” at the latest satire-drenched bon mot. In the end, Far From the Madding Crowd is a gorgeously-appointed trifle, a sort of impressionist Drinking Buddies. It doesn’t quite succeed in making the period piece as exciting as Downton, nor does it do it as dull as The Immigrant. Hooray? I love a period piece, but give me Romans playing swallow the lamprey or Medieval incest any day. The Victorians, sure, they had rat-baiting, and Freud getting geeked on cocaine, but in matters of love, they were kind of a bore.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.