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The last time the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg had the world at his feet it was 1998 and he had just made that modern classic of family dysfunction, Festen. The follow-up, eventually, was It’s All About Love, a futuristic curio about divorce, the apocalypse and ice skating. It did pretty much as well as you might imagine; there would be no comeback until 2012’s The Hunt. Now, unsurprisingly, there are no more ice skates. Instead, Vinterberg’s new film is a polite adaptation of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, made with hands so safe they could sterilise milk.
The nuts and bolts are neatly in place. There, tousled and plucky, is Bathsheba Everdene ( Carey Mulligan), newly installed as mistress of her late uncle’s farm. There, eternally hovering, is stoical farmhand Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts); later come the fixated Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and glinting Sergeant Troy ( Tom Sturridge). Swords flash; storms break; hearts ache.
It would take a director clumsier than Vinterberg to bungle the story. And this is professional in every aspect, flawlessly satisfactory, aggressively adequate. Doused in lustre like a freshly dipped sheep, all Wessex is aglow. It has, specifically, the loveliness of advertising, as if Vinterberg were selling tourist trips to rustic 1874. Oh, the sunsets! Oh, the fecundity!
Oh Gawd. For all the digital sheen, the result is more profoundly old-fashioned than John Schlesinger’s adaptation of 1967. There, with Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, the air was heavy with sex and West Country accents. Here, Mulligan’s Bathsheba declares “I shall astonish you all” in crisp Received Pronunciation. The star is perky, but overshadowed by the costume department (yes, that appears to be a velveteen Stetson).
Yet Bathsheba should be more than a dress-up doll, and the rest more than a potboiler. Lost in the gloss is Hardy’s weirdness, and with it half his greatness. (This is, after all, a story that hinges on 200 sheep plunging from a cliff.) But nothing chips the finish of a film that quietly shoos away the novel’s wilder elements, the poison of sexual rejection and madness of obsession. If Vinterberg really had been hired to advertise the 1870s, the client would be delighted. He doesn’t just make the past look gorgeous; 2015 feels bland enough to want to catch the first train out.