When I initially skimmed over today”s press release from Fox Searchlight, I somehow absorbed the information that Tomas Alfredson was directing their new adaptation of Thomas Hardy”s “Far From the Madding Crowd,” and was intrigued by the match of the material to his chilly, literate Swedish sensibility. Upon closer inspection, I was certainly right to be intrigued, but I had the wrong Scandinavian auteur: instead, it”s erstwhile Dogme 95 rebel Thomas Vinterberg who will be steering the prestige production, which began principal photography in the UK today.
Best known as a spiky, contemporary provocateur, the 44-year-old Dane is an unlikely fit for a British heritage drama – though not as surprising a choice following the crossover success of “The Hunt” as he would have been beforehand. Vinterberg stands a reasonable chance of picking up an Oscar for that Mads Mikkelsen-starring moral melodrama if/when Denmark submits it to the Academy, so Searchlight is plainly striking while the iron”s hot. In any event, it continues a remarkable career turnaround for the director, who was much feted for his 1998 Cannes winner “The Celebration,” but struggled to find favour with his follow-up efforts. He”ll certainly be hoping for a better outcome this this time than his first English-language effort “It”s All About Love,” a bizarre 2000 curate”s egg starring Claire Danes and Joaquin Phoenix.
Like that film, though, Vinterberg has managed to assemble an impressive cast. Carey Mulligan, something of a go-to girl at the moment for high-end literary adaptations, headlines as Hardy”s proto-feminist heroine Bathsheba Everdene, an independent-minded young woman courting the attentions of three suitors of different ages and classes. Belgian star Matthias Schoenaerts, fresh from his English-language debut in Guillaume Canet”s “Blood Ties” will star as brooding sheep farmer Gabriel Oak; bright young Brit Tom Sturridge plays military man Frank Troy; Michael Sheen plays the older, wealthier William Boldwood. Recent BAFTA Rising Star winner Juno Temple (“Atonement,” “Killer Joe”) rounds out the principal cast.
This is obviously a rich dramatic opportunity for Mulligan – who most recently took on other of literature”s great female objects of desire, Daisy Buchanan, in Baz Luhrmann”s “The Great Gatsby,” but didn”t quite get to sink her teeth into the part with all the spectacle surrounding her. Schoenaerts, however, is the most exciting choice here: he certainly has the right physical bearing and magnetism to play Oak, while “Blood Ties” showed us that he”s unexpectedly adept with accent work. (I”m still somewhat surprised that someone passed up the opportunity to have Tom Hardy, who”d be ideal in the role, in a Thomas Hardy adaptation.)
David Nicholls (“One Day”) is penning the adaptation, which gives me some pause: his work on Mike Newell”s “Great Expectations” (released last year in the UK) was proficient enough, but rather vanilla in a CliffsNotes kind of way. He will really need to abandon that kind of moderate tastefulness and tap into the carnal brutality of Hardy”s novel if the film is to match John Schlesinger”s unimprovable 1967 version, which starred Julie Christie, Terence Stamp and Alan Bates and really should be higher up in the canon than it is. (If you”ve never seen it, go seek it out. Nicolas Roeg”s cinematography alone is worth the effort.) Vinterberg, hopefully, will be on his least polite form too.
Below-the-line talent includes Vinterberg”s regular cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, Oscar-winning editor Claire Simpson (“Platoon,” “The Constant Gardener”) and Oscar-nominated costume designer Janet Patterson (“The Piano,” “Bright Star”). No word yet on which composer will be looking to live up to Richard Rodney Bennett”s magnificent score for the 1967 version (which garnered the film its only Oscar nod).
Vinterberg states: “I am excited to be working with DNA, Fox Searchlight and this talented cast and crew on ‘Far From the Madding Crowd.’ It is a great privilege to bring such a wonderful piece of very English literature to the screen.”
Fox Searchlight will presumably be angling for an awards season run next year – with “12 Years a Slave” currently their prize pony, and Amma Asante”s “Belle” joining their stable in Toronto, it”s interesting to see them extending their stake in British cinema.