Bathsheba Everdene doesn't need a husband.
This is an unusual quality for the heroine of a costume drama, a type of character who's traditionally consumed with the idea of marriage, out of societal obligation or duty, out of love or a desire for financial security (or both, the ideal happy ending). It's the only fundamental life decision most of these fictional women are allowed. And though Thomas Vinterberg's adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd is a familiar swirl of corsets and countryside sunsets, its protagonist, played with glowing vivacity by Carey Mulligan, is bracingly atypical.
Turning down an early suitor, shepherd Gabriel Oak, played by the broad-shouldered Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, she tells him with gentle firmness, "I'd hate to be some man's property," which isn't so much a proto-feminist decree as a genuine concern.
Bathsheba loves her freedom — the joy she takes in it exudes from every part of her being as she goes out riding, leaning back in the saddle to watch the low-hanging branches pass overhead, her hair in the sort of braid also favored by the dystopian YA character who's her namesake. And thanks to an unexpected inheritance, she has the means to preserve that freedom, even as Gabriel's circumstances change for the worse, and he eventually ends up in her employ at the farm she's taken over.
Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls have given Hardy's novel a sumptuous restyling — their movie's handsome the way an antique cabinet might be handsome, all careful detailing and quality craftsmanship. It's lusciously romantic, which only makes its quiet radicalism more pleasurable. In this version, Bathsheba, the book's famously headstrong and haughty heroine, looks totally reasonable in her desires to go her own way, to restore her family's farm to its past glory, and to have relationships based on genuine feelings rather than compulsion or convenience. It's just that the 19th century keeps getting in her way.
The other local farmers stare when Bathsheba and her companion arrive to sell their grain, and she has to fight to be treated equally and get the same prices her uncle had. As an impulsive prank, she sends a valentine to stolid neighboring landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), leading him to persistently court her, and though he's a sensible choice for a spouse, she doesn't actually want him.
The men in Bathsheba's life keep offering to protect and provide for her — they're always offering to buy her pianos — but, as she points out, she already has a piano, as well as a farm in which to house it, and she isn't looking for someone to swaddle her in comfort.
It's no wonder that when Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) comes into her life, with his soldier's uniform, his swagger, and all his promises of trouble, Bathsheba tumbles into his arms despite her better instincts (and Gabriel's advice), overwhelmed by pure, uncomplicated human desire. Except, of course, when marriage is involved in acting on that desire, it gets considerably more complicated.
Bathsheba is independent, but that doesn't mean she wants only to be alone, and Mulligan signals the character's awareness of and pleasure in male attention in every curl of her lips at the end of a playful conversation. Still, the movie doesn't lay blame for the drama that unfolds at her feet. She may be impetuous and flirtatious, and she makes mistakes, but she doesn't make anyone fall in love with her — that's something they do on their own. She's an unsettling force, but not a destructive one, and it's the men who are undone by her defying of social mores and expectations.
The movie places the swoonier love story aspects of Far From the Madding Crowd in the forefront, but it also, more interestingly, surfaces its coming-of-age qualities. Bathsheba teases Gabriel about having to be tamed when he first proposes, but it's more that she's not in a place to appreciate his steadfast faithfulness at that point — that she needs to do some living on her own first.
"It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs," she tells William when deflecting his proposal. Vinterberg's movie portrays its main character's internal experiences and emotional journey, rather than seeing her through the eyes of the men who pursue her, as some confounding object of desire.