Far From the Madding Crowd is yet another effective enough adaption of the story about Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a woman who has inherited a very large farm, and has three very different men vying for affections.
I have previously covered the three men with the 1967 version of the story where they were played by Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp. Bates played Gabriel Oak as just an honest bloke with a low key charm whose a bit down on his luck. Matthias Schoenaerts, a Belgian actor, which you would not know, well other than his name obviously, as he seems a bit a master of accents as one would never second guessed that he was really a New York thug in The Drop nor is there any reason to question his status here as an English shepherd. Schoenaerts fits right into the role to be sure, giving just the needed physical stature for the role. Though it would be easy enough to copy Bates's take on the character, it was a good performance after all, Schoenaerts takes a different approach. Where Bates was that likable average Joe, Schoenaerts takes a more stoic approach to the character. Schoenaerts plays him in a much colder fashion than Bates, though I don't mean that he plays the character as cold. Schoenaerts internalizes his performance even more than Bates did, and seems to purposefully strip away any direct charm from his Gabriel Oak. Though again that does not mean that this is not a charming performance.
On the contrary Schoenaerts actually has a very appealing presence, but it is never directed in a way as though he's trying to win any one over. There is a likability that Schoenaerts finds just in the way he so genuinely creates the modesty of the man. This is an interesting way to play the part, and it actually helps to further explain Bathsheba's original rejection of him at the beginning of the story when he's still a man with property and wealth. Schoenaerts is very good in this scene by showing his proposition as wholly earnest, though without an excess of passion, as Gabriel is just not the type of man who would try to actively win her over. Schoenaerts suggests even though Gabriel does have a charm of his own, the instinctual nature of the man keeps Bathsheba from accepting him at this point. Gabriel though loses his wealth through an unfortunate incident, which keeps him no longer acceptable even since Bathsheba becomes rich by chance, and with no where else to go really Gabriel starts working for her. With Bathsheba's new found status this does lead her into a situation where she meets her second potential suitor William Boldwood.
Michael Sheen did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying William Boldwood in Far From the Madding Crowd.
Sheen's alternate starting point allows him to set a different path for the character than what Finch took in that earlier adaptation. Boldwood only becomes a potential suitor when Bathsheba purposefully sends a mocking valentine to him. Sheen realizes the cruelty of the act particularly well as Boldwood makes his own proposal to Bathsheba. Sheen is really quite moving by suggesting such a nervousness in the moment from a lack of experience with such matters, while exuding a very real tenderness in his request at the same time. Sheen is terrific in just how much emotional vulnerability he shows in any of the scenes where Boldwood is interacting with Bathsheba, as there's even a sweetness in the way Sheen suggests his love for Bathsheba is gradually building a certain confidence which allow him to express more emotions. One particularly great scene for Sheen is when Bathsheba sings a song for her workers, with Boldwood in audience as well, and Boldwood joins in. Sheen is very affecting in the scene as he reveals Boldwood coming out of the confines of his original emotional state through his feelings for Bathesheba. The feelings that Sheen finds are only ever wholly genuine, unlike her last suitor one Sergeant Frank Troy played in the original by Terence Stamp, but here unfortunately by Tom Sturridge.
Well there's a reason that I'm not reviewing all three suitors, as I had done for the three in the 67 version, since where Stamp gave the best performance in that film, Sturridge gives the worst performance in this film. So back to the good performances, though they are still attached to Troy somewhat. Technically it should be noted that Schoenaerts's indirect charm would have been a perfect set up for someone with a considerable direct charm, which Stamp had in the role. Now Schoenaerts's approach actually makes him really standout, even after his character is overshadowed in terms of the story as it focuses on Bathsheba's other two suitors. Gabriel never leaves the film but he is often reduced to a few reactionary moments here and there, with them often being silent. Schoenaerts keeps Gabriel from being forgotten though by standing well as the moral conscious of the film. He makes an impact with every single one of his reactions, as he always portrays well Gabriel's certain distaste with many of Bathsheba's actions, while still keeping a certain undercurrent of Gabriel's own true feelings for her beneath it all. Importantly Schoenaerts finds the right unsaid chemistry with Mulligan from the beginning, which he naturally transitions from being a possible suitor, to a true friend who's willing to tell her the harsh truths.
Now Sheen's moments are more specific as Boldwood has scenes still devoted to him. With every scene though Sheen reveals Boldwood coming out of his meek state all the more, even after Bathsheba has rejected him for Sergeant Troy. There is yet another very striking scene for Sheen when he discusses this with Gabriel. Sheen is rather heartbreaking by having Boldwood open up all the more as he presents just how devastated Boldwood is over the rejection, and suggests that allowing himself to become emotional through his interest in her has only caused him to suffer. When Boldwood is given a second chance with Bathsheba, Sheen continues to be very effective as his performance finds a considerable joy within the chance, but still an ever growing unease. As even in his new proposal Sheen lines it with a palatable fear at the possibility of being once again ignored by her. In the end Boldwood's story is a tragic one which Peter Finch portrayed as resulting from almost a time bomb as his emotions finally are let out all at once. Although that worked well, Sheen's approach is all the more powerful though as he manages to build to this point, by only ever depicting a growing emotional distress in Boldwood that leaves him to take his final irrational act of violence. This is even with this version's approach to the ending which is a bit rushed, and gives less focus to Boldwood than the 67 version did. Now the ending's swift pace continues as Bathsheba finally chooses Gabriel. This might have failed completely but Schoenaerts and Mulligan ,for that matter, manage to make up for the film's shortcomings because of that underlying chemistry they shared right from their first scene together. They make the ending convincing because it less of a revelation, and more of an acceptance. Both Schoenaerts and Sheen actually manage to best Bates and Finch, who both gave fine performances, as they manage to find their own unique approaches to the material which enliven their characters.