Though it's hard to believe in 2015, there was a time when fictional heroines didn't have to be role models, when a character's backbone could be more than just a row of vertebrae lined up into teachable moments. It's wonderful that modern readers love Jane Austen — we still warm to the vitality of her characters, and to their defiant code of self-determination, for good reason — but the popular conception of her work has recast it as a kind of female-empowerment petting zoo, a place to go for "You go, girl!" strokes. The phrase "strong woman character" has come to mean almost nothing, a trend that diminishes the power of independence rather than intensifies it. It's as if, instead of taking the measure of a character, flaws and all, we're always subconsciously adding the tag line "She's really smart — for a girl."
Is Thomas Hardy, whose socially progressive views found their greatest expression in his women characters, among them the bold and autonomous Bathsheba Everdene, next in line for the Jane Austen treatment? Please let the answer be no. But Thomas Vinterberg's pedantic and twisted adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd is a bad sign. This isn't a wholly terrible picture. Shot in Dorset, Somerset, and Oxfordshire by the Danish-born Charlotte Bruus Christensen, it's handsome in a dour, brooding way — Hardy territory as viewed by a Scandinavian rather than an Englishman, an odd-couple matchup of sensibilities that's intriguing by itself. It's maybe more Edvard Grieg than Vaughan Williams, yet it works.
But this Bathsheba Everdene — a Victorian-era woman who inherits and capably runs a farm, and also rejects the humble man who truly loves her in favor of a shallow but dashing soldier — is all wrong, and it's hard to know where to lay the blame. Carey Mulligan plays her, but it seems Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls have tweaked the character to underscore her strengths and soften the edges of her weaknesses. As written by Hardy, Bathsheba is bracingly whole and human; here she's been outlined, and thus circumscribed, by an eager student's highlighter.
It didn't have to be this way. Mulligan can be a charming and delicately expressive actress — her Daisy Buchanan, in Baz Luhrmann's unfairly ridiculed Great Gatsby, captured the sparrow-boned fragility, and weakness, of the character Fitzgerald wrote. But, most likely without even realizing it, she throws Bathsheba's dignity — so deeply entwined with her ambition and thoughtlessness — out the window, instead turning the character into something much more dispiriting: a pepper pot. Mulligan too often squinches her face in a self-satisfied smile, and when she comes out with a line like "I have no need of a husband" — a bit of dialogue completely in tune with Hardy's sensibilities — it's less a natural outburst than like something she read in a pamphlet. She's feisty when she needs to be self-possessed; they're not the same thing, and sometimes the former is just a cartoon version of the latter.
Vinterberg's casting is otherwise sound, to the extent that any poor sod should have to try to match the actors John Schlesinger assembled for his superb and stirring 1967 adaptation: Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp, and Peter Finch. Belgium's Matthias Schoenaerts (The Drop, Rust and Bone) is Gabriel Oak, the shepherd who's both as sturdy and as capable of turning toward the sun as the tree that shares his name. Schoenaerts' demeanor — grave, sensitive, watchful — is perfect. You'd trust him with your sheep. He's especially lovely in a sequence with Michael Sheen's William Boldwood, the emotionally repressed farmer who becomes infatuated with Bathsheba only to realize he has to join the queue. "I feel the most terrible grief," Boldwood confides, after being toyed with and rejected by the woman he loves but can't come close to understanding. Sheen's performance is fine-grained, and the pure Englishness of his understatement is heartrending; Oak responds with a silent but electrified current of masculine sympathy. They're two guys bummed out by the same woman, but they're so respectful of her genuinely noble qualities that they refuse to speak ill of her.
Tom Sturridge is too numbly featureless to channel the cruel but sexy Sergeant Troy; they don't call them wooden soldiers for nothing. Sadly, his performance is perhaps the perfect counterpart to Mulligan's. Worse yet, Vinterberg takes great care to capture the many, many meaningful glances exchanged between Bathsheba and her truest match, Oak. They're so busy blinking out the Morse code of their unspoken mutual regard, you'd think they were trying to alert each other to ominous weather conditions.
Vinterberg, director of serious-minded workouts like The Hunt and The Celebration, is stalwart. You'd have to be, not just to mount an adaptation of a book as great as this one, but to risk having the result compared with Schlesinger's version, a grand, emotional sweep of a thing — with a star, Christie, whose mere presence is a kind of cliffside poetry. No wonder this new Far From the Madding Crowd can't win. Any adaptation would rise or fall on the strength of its Bathsheba, a woman who knows exactly what she wants — except when she doesn't. She can run a farm and a business; she refuses to ride sidesaddle; she understands the meaning and the uses of money. She is also capable of choosing the wrong man, because to be above that would render her exempt from human fallibility, and would drain her of some of her stallion beauty. Bathsheba can belong to no one — not even to the reader or viewer in search of role models.