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Far From the madding crowd

Thomas Hardy novels tend to inhabit a dark world, where suffering reigns supreme.

But the enthralling adaptation Far from the Madding Crowd takes that landscape and taps into its vibrant beauty, complexity and romantic potential, while still remaining faithful to the source.  The latest version of Hardy's 1874 classic works on all levels. Foremost, it is brilliantly directed by Thomas Vinterberg, who also made two other masterful dramas, 2012's The Hunt and 1998's The Celebration.

The sublime production — particularly the gorgeous cinematography, deft editing and beautiful musical score — transports the viewer into the English countryside. Vinterberg's use of natural lighting and evocative close-ups enhance a sense of earthy realism.

Crowd centers around the inheritance of strong-willed Bathsheba Everdene — pronounced the same as that other spirited Everdeen of recent literature and film, Hunger Games' Katniss. (Author Suzanne Collins has said she named Katniss Everdeen after Hardy's heroine.)  Orphaned Bathsheba inherits her uncle's large farm, making her a rare financially autonomous woman in Victorian England. Being in charge suits her headstrong nature.  She spurns the proposal of her first suitor, rugged sheep farmer Gabriel Oak insisting she does not want to be "some man's property." However, the two have evident chemistry.  She later rejects the proposal of the older, more established William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), whose attempts at wooing her are woefully unromantic.  In a moment of willful passion, she succumbs to the charms of the reckless military sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), even though she had previously "nourished a secret contempt for girls who were the slaves of the first good-looking young fellow who should choose to salute them.''

Plenty of fallout results from her decisions, but what stands out in Vinterberg's interpretation is positioning Bathsheba as modern, and a proto-feminist.

"It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language designed by men to express theirs," Bathsheba says, in one of Hardy's apt and wholly contemporary-sounding observations.  With its mansions and pastoral meadows, the look of the film is both stately and resplendent. Shooting over the course of four seasons and largely outdoors, Vinterberg captures changing weather patterns, heightening a sense of authenticity.

Adapting a classic can be fraught with pitfalls. And making a fourth screen adaptation — the most famous being the 1967 version starring Julie Christie, Terence Stamp and Alan Bates — of the Hardy novel is even trickier. It's not worth remaking if it doesn't have its own distinctive stamp. And Vinterberg has updated the story for a new audience.  Vinterberg intriguingly blends, and sometimes juxtaposes, verdant beauty with gritty eeriness, particularly in a haunting scene where a flock of sheep plunge over a cliff.

With its artfully composed scenes, the film has a painterly quality. Scenes of workers toiling in the fields evoke the artistry of Pieter Bruegel or Jean-Francois Millet.

"It is my intention to astonish you all," Bathsheba tells her farmhands.

Her story is astonishing indeed: an enthralling, complex, nimbly acted drama with a sweeping romance that doesn't shy away from sexual politics. Claudia Puig/USA Today

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