Far from the Madding Crowd (2015): Tale of One Woman and Three Suitors

The heroine of Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba Everdene, is a rare country woman in Victorian times.  Through the sudden inheritance of a family farm, she has become as independent financially as she is in spirit, which ironically makes her a lure for the very thing she’s been trying to avoid:  marriage.

Says screenwriter David Nicholls of the character’s uniqueness: “Bathsheba is one of those greatly literary characters who were designed to shock and challenge audiences at the time.  Here is a woman who can be capricious, selfish and vain, but also incredibly strong, attractive and fascinating.   She’s a character who has cast a long shadow over many female characters in literature and film, from Scarlett O’Hara on.”

Carey Mulligan

The filmmakers were thrilled to land their absolute first choice to embody that:  Carey Mulligan, who previously worked with producers Macdonald and Reich on Fox Searchlight’s NEVER LET ME GO.  Mulligan garnered an Oscar nomination for AN EDUCATION, and been acclaimed for her consistently diverse work in such films as SHAME, DRIVE and THE GREAT GATSBY.

“Carey is one of the greatest British actresses of her generation,” says Macdonald.  “She evokes emotion and believability with every character she creates.”

“We all agreed she was perfect for the role.  Carey is a chameleon.  She inhabits characters down to the very pores of their skin,” adds Reich.

For Vinterberg, she inhabited the soul of this woman who has stepped way out ahead of her time.  “It’s almost impossible now for me to separate Carey Mulligan and Bathsheba Everdene,” the director says.  “Carey is Bathsheba – a combination of a tough, intelligent woman and a beautiful flower who sometimes needs to be held.  She’s just absolutely truthful in this role. She’s an amazingly sharp instrument and she came in knowing the book even better than I did.  We had a strong mutual understanding of Bathsheba that led to a great collaboration.”

Mulligan was intrigued right away by the unlikely seeming combination of Vinterberg and Hardy. “There was something about Thomas doing this film that seemed so different and exciting and I wanted to see what he would do with it,” the actress says. “After meeting him for the first time, I walked away knowing that this was what I was going to do next, although it was another ten months before we actually started filming.”

Though Mulligan had not yet read the book when she was first approached, she soon became a huge fan, carrying her dog-eared copy to the set every day. “When I read the script I just could not believe that I’d never read the book and then when I read the book it was triply exciting. I felt so lucky to have this amazing source material to refer to,” she explains.  “Thomas and I would look at the book every day and every time we were addressing a scene we would always see what was there for us.  Often, there were just little lines or tiny descriptions that gave the perfect inspiration.”

“There is one great description where Hardy writes that Bathsheba is as ‘excited, wild and honest as the day’ which I thought was a pretty good starting point,” she recalls.  “I think she’s someone who has a more revolutionary point of view than most women in that era in that she has her own ambitions that aren’t tied to anyone else, and she becomes more and more conflicted about how much it might be necessary to conform.”

For Mulligan, it was in the cracks in Bathsheba’s armor that the light shone through.  “She’s definitely someone who makes serious mistakes, but she’s never duplicitous,” she points out. “I saw her as a woman who lives by her instincts, by her gut, which can be dangerous – and I became very interested in those flaws and in her straightforwardness.  In the book, every kind of feeling that goes through her is manifested in some sort of rosiness in her cheeks.    There are so many lovely descriptions of how she just can’t hide anything.  That is what is so lovely about the character, and what I wanted to explore in her.”

Mulligan was also entranced by Bathsheba’s slow-boiling love for Gabriel, which starts out as a surprising mix of friendship and reticence only to come upon her in ways she doesn’t expect.  “I think there’s something about Gabriel that sort of cuts through everything in Bathsheba,” she observes. “He is the only person in her life who can hold a mirror up to her and be completely honest.  I love that, ultimately, they realize that this companionship and beautiful, natural intimacy they have with each other is something they can build on.”

Throughout the production, Mulligan was inspired by what she was getting from Vinterberg. “Thomas is hands-on and he’s very direct about saying exactly what he thinks. He’s a romantic.  He truly was touched by and embraced the film’s love story … and I got swept up in it with him.”

Tale of  Three Lovers

Though Bathsheba Everdeen values her independence more than almost anything, her life is complicated by three very determined suitors who each seek her hand in marriage.  Her first proposal comes from the upstanding landowner Gabriel Oak, but she is too independent to consider it at the time.  Oak is a true man of the land:  rugged, generous, steadfast – and patient as it turns out.  “Oak is a difficult dramatic character,” notes Thomas Vinterberg.  “Here is this guy who decides on this woman, yet he’s just sort of there for her, hanging out on the farm waiting for her to choose him, so he’s not really the prototype of an active male lead.  So what I was looking for in an actor was the essence of Gabriel’s innate strength and pride.”

He found that quality in the rising Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who first riveted global audiences as a steroid-pumping cattle farmer in BULLHEAD, and then starred opposite Marion Cotillard in Jacques Audiard’s gritty romance RUST AND BONE, for which he won the Cesar Award for Most Promising Actor.  He also played Eric Deeds in Michaël Roskam’s THE DROP with Tom Hardy and the late James Gandolfini.

“Matthias is a man’s man and you can feel there is so much integrity in him,” says Vinterberg of Schoenaerts. “He’s a brilliant actor, he’s very sexy, and he’s amazing to work with.  As Oak, he is that rock in Bathsheba’s world, but then again, he also has a real vulnerability in his eyes.”

Everyone was excited about what Schoenaerts brought to the mix.  “We thought in advance that Gabriel was going to be the most difficult part to cast,” admits Reich. “We needed to find that old fashioned type of masculinity:  strong, quiet, with a visceral relationship to the earth, a man you could see scything, tilling, building fences and herding sheep. Matthias is all those things.”

“He is an amazing actor,” adds Macdonald.  “He has the screen presence to reveal Gabriel as the type of man who you could always go to with your problems and who would never let you down.”

Schoenaerts was keen to work with Vinterberg, and loved the director’s reasons for revisiting Hardy in our times.  Says the actor: “I was curious as to why Thomas was so eager to make this film now,” he admits.  “He had a very simple and very reasonable answer.  He said ‘I think we need this kind of story right now because we live in very cynical times and we need a story that is about something else, and this is a beautiful one.’  His passion just radiated through his voice.”

Schoenaerts also found himself drawn to Oak as a man with strong values.  “Gabriel’s very simple, humble, straightforward, and honest, and also one of the most loyal and reliable people you could have in your life.  In a way, he has the qualities I think everyone wants to have, but he’s not too good to be true, either.  This is a film about choices you make in life and Gabriel chooses to be responsible and unselfish, and that’s the beauty of the character.”

The roughhewn physicality of Schoenaerts’ performance certainly seduced Carey Mulligan.  “Matthias is such a brilliant actor that he had the essence of Oak the moment he came on set,” she says.  “There is something astonishing about Matthias because he is so huge and domineering yet also very gentle.  He had that sturdiness and reliability you want in Oak – and yet you feel he looks at you and sees straight through you.”

In turn, Schoenaerts enjoyed finding a rapport with Mulligan.   “Carey makes Bathsheba extremely layered, with so many contrasting aspects. This role would be an enormous challenge for any actress but Carey found all the nuances and really brings her to life,” he says.

Gabriel might be Bathsheba’s rock, but Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge) is the first one who manages to steal her heart with a lusty initial encounter.  Full of charm and flattery, but also fickle, entitled and conceited, he leads Bathsheba down a darker path – for a while.

After auditioning numerous actors for the part, Sturridge (BEING JULIA, THE BOAT THAT ROCKED) was the one that walked into the DNA office and blew everyone away. “There had to be something incredibly seductive, extremely arrogant and yet somehow vulnerable in Troy, which is a difficult combination, but Tom really conveyed that,” says Vinterberg.

“Troy is not an easy part, because he is at once very sexy and obviously egotistical and Tom was just brilliant at that,” adds Macdonald.

Sturridge was drawn to Troy as someone he sees as not really a villain but a man who behaves badly because he is so captive to his own whimsical heart.  “I find Troy’s behavior eminently explicable. I think his story is that of a man who falls in love with two different women (Bathsheba and Fanny) and he genuinely loves both of them in different ways,” he comments.

Mulligan and Sturridge have been friends for over ten years, so working together came easily.  “Carey is so honest in the way she works, you just look at her and you see the truth,” muses Sturridge of their first on-screen collaboration.  “The pressure on her was enormous as she is in every single scene, but she handled it with such grace, skill and kindness.”

“Just to get to work with Tom was awesome,” counters Mulligan.  “Tom and I shared a lot of mad ideas with each other and Thomas encouraged us.  All our scenes have a sort of energy to them because I think these are two people who function really well in the short term … but realize that they can’t sustain what they have. They have the epitome of the whirlwind romance.”

Bathsheba’s third suitor is her most prosperous, and the one who offers her the most in terms of long-term safety and stability:  the wealthy but emotionally stunted landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen).

Bathsheba gives him a hastily thought out Valentine’s card and he is immediately smitten, pursuing her doggedly, trying to woo her with possessions, even as he loses his own mind.

Sheen is currently winning accolades in a very different role as sex researcher William Masters on Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” and is famous for his portrayal of Tony Blair in THE QUEEN.  “Michael is one of the best actors we have, and he has that absolute gravitas that you need for Boldwood,” says Macdonald.

Vinterberg saw something touching behind that gravitas. “Michael gets to the enormous loneliness in Boldwood,” notes the director.   “You always see him alone in large rooms of his mansion.  There is a sense of sadness that Michael creates, yet he combines it with a sense of pride and strength that make him persuasive. He was wonderful in the role.”

Like his castmates, Sheen was attracted by a fresh take on an enduring classic.  “A big part of wanting to do the film was thinking about what that combination of Vinterberg and Hardy might be like,” he says. “I loved the idea of seeing how a director who can be so forensic and revelatory might bring those qualities to this story.  I thought it was very exciting.”

Reading the novel for the first time, Sheen was also struck by the story’s relatability and vitality.  “It felt relevant and compelling, and Bathsheba’s predicaments still feel true,” he says of the book.  “Hardy is often talked of as being bleak and dark, but this story has light and shade and humor.”

Sheen describes Boldwood as a man “who is quite separate from the community around him because of his wealth and his social position, but also because of his personality.”  He goes on:  “Hardy gives you clues that Boldwood had a disappointment in love early on in his life and he has become quite uncomfortable being around other people.  He’s almost like a Citizen Kane figure, living this very isolated life on his farm, when Bathsheba sends him the fateful valentine.”

Mulligan thought Sheen was the perfect choice for Boldwood. “He has a solidity but he also plays the descent into madness so brilliantly,” she recalls.  “He starts off as this man who’s made a decision to spend his life alone, but once Bathsheba rashly makes him notice her, she becomes his sole reason for living and you can see the cracks start to form in his personality, until he just sort of disintegrates. Michael reveals all this in such a skillful performance.”

Sheen says Mulligan’s performance was the pivot point upon which everything else in the film turned.  “Bathsheba is the most extraordinary character, not just a strong heroine, but a very complicated one,” he observes.  “She’s intriguing yet flawed in a variety of ways and Carey created her as a fully rounded person. Carey brings a real spontaneity, a real in-the-moment-ness, and yet she works very hard as well, bringing an intellectual rigour to her passion.”

Rounding out the main cast is Juno Temple (MALEFICENT), who takes on the role of Fanny Robin, the tragically left-behind bride who further complicates Bathsheba’s already unhappy marriage to Troy.  Temple says the challenge in playing Fanny was in finding her appeal to Troy, even amidst her grim circumstances.  “I think she was once a joyous little creature and that’s why Troy wanted to be with her – she made him smile, they laughed together,” she says.

Fanny is a yin-and-yang contrast to Bathsheba, Temple notes.  “The joy of Fanny is her simplicity but Bathsheba is this incredibly powerful and complicated woman, a real firecracker.  They’re polar opposites, really… but it turns out they both appeal to this one man.”

Temple says the key to balancing these relationships was Vinterberg.  “Thomas is such an actor’s director,” she summarizes.  “He’s so in touch with emotions that he knows in an instant if something did or didn’t work. It’s either ‘you moved me’ or you didn’t.  He had this amazing connection with this story and he was so involved on every level, it was really, really cool.”