A couple of centuries before plucky young Katniss Everdeen fought to the death in The Hunger Games, her namesake ploughed the furrow of female independence in Thomas Hardy’s classic novel Far from the Madding Crowd.
The curiously-named Bathsheba Everdene (played by the luminous Carey Mulligan) has not just three romantic suitors to ward off – disconcertingly, one proffers a lamb and a proposal within moments of meeting her – but a successful farm to get on and run, if only the village’s misogynists would let her. Oh, it’s hard to be a woman in rural 1870s England.
Bathsheba’s romantic travails have been brought sumptuously to the screen by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, whose previous film The Hunt had a kindergarten teacher (a sensational Mads Mikkelsen) tackling the distrust of his close friends and community after he is accused of child abuse. Happily, Vinterberg has moved into slightly less confronting pastures for his follow-up, directing a wonderful English-speaking cast which includes Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge and the Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) whose impressive English accent renders him a convincing Gabriel Oak.
Mulligan’s natural grace and poise contributes in large part to this being a beautifully photographed, well-acted and thoughtfully constructed piece of filmmaking, pitch-perfect in narrative tone and musical soundtrack. Bathsheba’s predicament, such as it is, could risk looking trivial and fatuous to a modern-day audience who knows that choosing a husband is not the path to success (a lesson Bathsheba’s descendant strong female characters, Katniss and Bella, could perhaps learn from). But we learn early on that this businesswoman would be happy enough to be a bride, if only there was no husband at the end of it. Unable to take criticism or frank opinion, Bathsheba has character in spades.
Scripted by David Nicholls (whose work on Starter for Ten and One Day proved a knack for novel adaptations), Hardy should be pleased that his heroine’s honour is in safe and respectful hands.