It’s hard to distinguish if some of the criticism leveled at this, the fourth adaption of Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel, is because the director of this English classic is Danish, or because ardent cinephiles are miffed that anyone should try surpassing John Schlesinger’s 1967 definitive version starring Julie Christie. Nevertheless this new pared down adaptation scores high with its take on the tale of how Miss Bathsheba Everdene discovers that her new found wealth makes her the most eligible spinster in the County.
To be fair her first suitor Gabriel Oaks, the strong rough farmer of very few words, pops the question when he first meets the headstrong young woman before Bathsheba even knows that she is about to inherit her late Uncle’s very impressive farm. Poor Gabriel is not only unlucky in love and fails to get Bathsheba to accept him, but very soon afterwards his young sheepdog goes wild and in a freak accident, Gabriel loses his flock and the farm with it too. So instead of becoming his wife, Bathsheba becomes his employer when she hires him as a shepherd to work on her farm.
Her second suitor is a wealthy middle-aged landowner whose vast estates adjoin her land. Mr. Boldwood initially seems to view a potential marriage as a way of merging their properties together but it soon appears that this confirmed bachelor is quite smitten with his pretty young neighbour and steps up his courtship a peg or two in the hope that he will win her hand. She lets him down gentler than she had with Gabriel and gives him hope when she promised to seriously think about his offer of marriage.
The third man to court her is a dashing army Sergeant who is still smarting from the fact that a kitchen maid had left him standing at the altar recently. Now on the rebound Sergeant Troy in his bright scarlet uniform puts on all the charm he can muster to outrageously flirt with this wealthy pretty heiress, and totally out of character this normally level headed young woman falls for his veneer of smarm, and runs off and marries him.
Back on the farm with the new ‘master’ installed who is hell bent on gambling away all her income, Bathsheba soon comes to regret her mistake in marrying a scoundrel who had only courted after he had been jilted by the love of his life. Something that becomes quickly confirmed when the body of his dead pregnant ex-girlfriend appears on their doorstep.
Troy drowns his sorrows and himself, and so now a ‘widow’ Bathsheba is courted once again by Mr Boldwood and this time he almost makes it to the finishing post. However, in Vinterberg’s take on the story, Ms. Everdene’s choices for a spouse had been clear all along. It was either to be the Goodie, the Baddie or the Hottie, and even in this rural 19th Century setting, we always knew who had to succeed.
Shot on location in Hardy’s lush Dorset countryside it feels as English as it could with Carey Mulligan shining so radiantly as the woman that everyone wants to fall in love, especially in this case, the camera. Michael Sheen gives a wonderfully moving performance as the heartbroken Boldwood; Tom Sturridge plays the Sergeant , and Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts does his best West Country accent as the broody Gabriel.
Coming in at 60 minutes shorter than Schlesinger’s epic, it still packs the full punch of Hardy’s classic tale, and for once this is a remake that is almost as good as the original.