Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

'Madding Crowd' a Luscious Period Piece

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

'Madding Crowd' a Luscious Period Piece

Article excerpt

Bathsheba Everdene - the greatest name ever invented for a 19th- century literary heroine - is borrowed from the greatest biblical sex scandal: King David lusts for warrior Uriah's beautiful wife, impregnates her, and then arranges for the soldier's death in order to marry her himself.

It wasn't really Bathsheba's fault, but she inspired some serious turmoil among the guys in Israel, as does her namesake in Wessex, a fictional version of rustic Dorset in "Far from the Madding Crowd." The 1874 novel - Thomas Hardy's first great success - has a handsome new feature film rendering, the first in a generation, with Danish director Thomas Vinterberg at the helm.

In his casting, Mr. Vinterberg opts for edgy. That gamble works especially well with kinetic Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba. Three very different moths are drawn to this dark beauty's flame: faithful shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), stolid gentry man William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and the dangerously dashing Sgt. Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). Taken together, Bathsheba's trio of high-contrast suitors reveal The Many Faces of Love - and class friction - of Hardy's late-Victorian day.

Reacting to her pride and vanity will, in turn, reveal their strengths and weaknesses and complicate the tangled tale.

In a delicious scene early on, for instance, Gabriel catches her in a sexy riding outfit during an unself-conscious, erotic moment: To avoid the low-hanging branches on a narrow bridle path, she suddenly drops backward, lying down on her pony's back - then lingers there, rather too sensually and too long. Says Hardy with characteristic drollery: "The performer seemed quite at home anywhere between a horse's head and its tail."

Soon after, when she inherits a prosperous farm, the new mistress tells her workers: "Don't anyone suppose that because I'm a woman, I don't understand the difference between bad goings-on and good. I shall be up before you're awake, I shall be afield before you're up, and I shall have breakfasted before you're afield. In short, I shall astonish you all."

She's as good as her words, and Hardy is as good as his. In novels like this and "Return of the Native" and "Tess of the d'Urbervilles," his independent female characters are ahead of their time, notwithstanding the narrator's backhanded sexist compliments. (My favorite: Bathsheba is "that novelty among women - one who finished a thought before beginning the sentence which was to convey it.")

Ms. Mulligan (Oscar-nominated for "An Education" in 2009) is riveting and fresh as a daisy here - as opposed to the Daisy for which she got brickbats in Baz Luhrmann's "Gatsby" (2013). Hardy gave Bathsheba such full symphonic treatment on the page that an actress is at her screenwriter's mercy and can only select certain tones and tunes to convey the role. …

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