There are two valid, yet opposing, questions concerning Far From the Madding Crowd, a bracing and vibrant 2015 adaption of Thomas Hardy's 19th century novel and, at least so far, the best film of the year: No. 1, why would anyone want to reboot the 1967 film starring a luminous Julie Christie? No. 2, why has it taken so long to attempt a remake? The answer to both questions is Carey Mulligan, whose achievement in the new film demands she be the year's first prime candidate for a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Mulligan, who will no doubt take home a Tony Award in a little more than a week's time for her current Broadway appearance in Skylight, is a rarity among her contemporaries. Having had the pleasure of seeing Mulligan in New York in the 2008 stage production of The Seagull, I can attest she's a master of both stage and screen. One year later, at age 24, Mulligan was a 2009 Oscar nominee for her heartbreaking performance in An Education. She has been oh-so-smart with her film choices, taking smaller but juicier supporting roles in Drive, Shame and Inside Llewyn Davis. Mulligan said she has steered her acting career away from costume drama movies, telling NPR she was afraid of being "pigeonholed as a British actress as only doing that sort of thing." This is all the more reason for her to breathe new life into the character of Bathsheba Everdene, Far From the Madding Crowd's wellspring heroine, who has influenced countless female characters of note: Lady Brett Ashley from Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Gone With the Wind's Scarlett O'Hara and even Bathsheba's 21st century literary namesake Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games all trace fictional bloodlines to the headstrong protagonist of Hardy's novel who chose to live "far from the madding (or frenzied) crowd" of London, living instead in Britain's hinterland where she employs scores of farmers and ranchers.
"I shall be up before you are awake; I shall be afield before you're up; and I shall have breakfasted before you are afield," Everdeen tells her laborers. "I shall astonish you all."
Mulligan is indeed astonishing in the way she injects relevancy and a sense of urgency to a 150-year-old story that turns out to be greater than its surface value as a pedestrian romantic drama—this retelling brings greater focus to societal echelons and the priorities of Western agrarian cultures that have more to do with husbandry than husbands.
Far From the Madding Crowd first surfaced as a serialized story in London magazine The Cornhill. Since then, it has been adapted into a stage production (1882), a silent film (1915), a ballet (1996), an opera (2006) and even a comic strip titled Tamara Drewe (2005). However, It was director John Schlesinger's 1967 sensual film, starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp that, by and large, set a 20th century standard. After screening the latest adaptation, I revisited the 1967 version, for which I had great admiration, and can honestly say, the new film is head-and-shoulders above the previous effort. In fact, the first 10 minutes of Danish director Thomas Vinterberg's (The Hunt) adaptation are as breathtaking as anything you'll see in a hundred other films. Cinematography from Charlotte Bruus Christensen (a regular Vinterberg collaborator), costumer designer Janet Patterson (The English Patient, Titanic) and composer Craig tArmstrong (Romeo + Juliet; Love, Actually) also get high praise and should also be strong contenders for Oscar noms.
Then there's Mulligan as a spell-binding Everdeen. In the opening frames of Far From the Madding Crowd, we see her riding a horse sidesaddle but soon enough, she swings her right leg over the saddle, sets her feet in the stirrups and takes off at breakneck speed. Undeterred by an overgrowth of trees and bushes, which would block most riders, Everdeen bends back, bringing her spine almost parallel to the horse's and continues to ride through the thicket. Two hours later, Mulligan had galloped away with my love for this film and my newfound admiration for her talent.