What’s in a name? There’s a lot to unpack in this one: “Bathsheba Everdene.”

Carey Mulligan in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’
Image: Fox Searchlight

Carey Mulligan in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’

Bathsheba, of course, was the woman with whom King David had an adulterous affair in the Old Testament book of 2 Samuel. And “Everdene” has a new contemporary context from Katniss Everdeen, the strong-willed heroine of The Hunger Games franchise whose last name is borrowed from the protagonist of Thomas Hardy’s 1897 novel, Far from the Madding Crowd.

Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of the Victorian novel opens with Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) narrating her opinion on her name—she hates it. She says it sounds wrong when said aloud, like it belongs to someone else.

Though this is the only piece of narration in the whole movie, it does a surprisingly apt job of summarizing what’s wrong in the whole movie: Vinterberg’s vision of Bathsheba doesn’t belong to the character she had the potential to be. There’s a vague sense throughout Far from the Madding Crowd that the source story deals with something really meaningful, but none of that significance is fulfilled by the movie. What viewers are left with is a flop of a film that weakly gestures at ideas that deserve a lot better.

Bathsheba begins as the quintessential, independent-woman-who-don’t-need-no-man: she behaves in a blunt, authoritative way, she aspires to run her own farm, and above all, she detests conventional Victorian marriage. She says as much herself when she turns down her first proposal from gentle shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). “I’m too independent for you!” she asserts. “If I were to marry, I’d want someone to tame me, and you’d never be able to do it.”

Bathsheba sees only extremes for the lives of women in her time. Marriage means being controlled and owned by a man, while staying single means she would have full agency in how she lives her life. She’s vivaciously counter-cultural, content to live as a hard-working farmer if it means she gets to belong to herself.

It turns out she can have her cake and eat it too when her wealthy uncle dies and she inherits his estate. She becomes the “mistress, not master” of a small town of farmers and sets herself to the task of revitalizing their failing livelihood. When faced with a room full of uncertain workers, she stands and declares, “It is my intent to astonish you all.”

As Bathsheba is coming into her own, Oak loses everything he has when a wayward sheepdog drives his flock off a cliff. He wanders, looking for work, and ends up helping defend Bathsheba’s barn against a raging fire. In return for Oak’s service, Bathsheba happily gives him a job managing her farm.

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But just when it seems like Bathsheba has everything she wants, two more suitors enter her life: neighboring farm owner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), the film’s designated Nice Guy, and Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), typical Bad Boy. Bathsheba spends the rest of the movie tempestuously tossed between Boldwood, Troy, and Oak as she questions what she really wants and who she really is.

Carey Mulligan in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’
Image: Fox Searchlight

Carey Mulligan in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’

The film’s answers to those questions aren’t nearly as interesting as they can and should be. The story sets up great potential points about gender roles, vocation, relationships, and personal fulfillment but never drives any of them home. It wobbles weakly in the worst sort of middle ground: just powerful enough to feel relevant but just spineless enough not to really upset anybody.

Unless, of course, people go to the movie expecting a story they can care about, in which case the film’s desire to be ubiquitous backfires catastrophically. The movie makes like it’s going to ask its viewers to think but it gives them no incentive to; the stakes aren’t high enough, the characters aren’t real enough, and the story isn’t strong enough to support that kind of introspection.

It’s as if Vinterberg has no sense of the narrative rule, “Show, don’t tell.” Everywhere the movie should show a piece of action, it tells it, and everywhere it should tell about what the characters are thinking, it shows it instead. Silent glances filled with frustration and longing only go so far to explain a character’s motivations. For a film that’s already being carried on the shoulders of its leading lady, it could stand to have more of Carey Mulligan, whose disarming smile and skillful acting defy her terrible material. She could have handled more narration and explicative dialogue, elements that could easily have provided the nuance and detail the movie lacked.

This ham-handed treatment of Bathsheba’s story does the feminist inspiration for the film a frustrating disservice. It’d be helpful to know how many of Bathsheba’s empowering assertions come from Hardy’s novel and how many were the result of the writers throwing darts at a board of Austen-isms.

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Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’
Image: Fox Searchlight

Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’

Either way the film ruined all its best quotable lines by allowing them to devolve into platitudes. There are some fantastic statements, including, “My intention is to astonish you all,” “Women don’t jilt men, men jilt women,” and “It is difficult for a woman to express her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” Taken independently, they’re effective, even exciting. But when they’re strung like garnishes to decorate a half-baked narrative, they lose all their vigor. These ideas and the potentially amazing woman behind them deserve to be the main course of a film like this, not an unappetizing side dish.

Bathsheba Everdene reverses the conventions of her Biblical namesake; she’s not the victim of men’s choices in her life, she’s the catalyst for change in their lives. Her tenacity and impetuousness were inherited by her contemporary successor, Katniss. Her name alone belies the vast potential of her character, potential that Vinterberg wasted.

Caveat Spectator

When Oak’s flock falls off the cliff we see a few sheep hitting the rocks below and their somewhat bloodied corpses littering the beach. Oak shoots the errant dog who drove the sheep, but we only see Oak holding the gun. There’s a brief shot of a circus boxing ring that’s bloodless but the punches still hit hard mostly through sound. A character kills another character by shooting them with a shotgun at close range. The most sexually charged scene is when Troy demonstrates his sword fighting skills to Bathsheba by swinging and thrusting his sword at her and only barely avoiding cutting her. She’s excited by the close danger, and when they kiss, Troy gropes her crotch. Two characters have sex but nothing’s shown. A pregnant character dies and her coffin is displayed in Bathsheba’s home; at one point, the coffin is thrown open to reveal the corpses of the woman and her stillborn baby.

Jessica Gibson is an intern with Christianity Today Movies and a student at The King’s College in New York City.

Far From the Madding Crowd
Our Rating
1 Star - Weak
Average Rating
(14 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (For some sexuality and violence.)
Directed By
Thomas Vinterberg
Run Time
1 hour 59 minutes
Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen
Theatre Release
May 22, 2015 by FOX Searchlight Pictures
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