Carey Mulligan's face could easily be a liability. From her delicately dimpled cheeks, sad almond eyes and doughy expressiveness, her innocent beauty is one that might have condemned her to silly high school roles — even at 29.
Whether she's jumping into Daisy Buchanan's gowns or performing a haunting rendition of "New York, New York," she always manages to use that rare combination of youth and worldliness to make roles her own. The story is no different in Thomas Vinterberg's adaptation of the 1874 Thomas Hardy novel "Far From the Madding Crowd," where Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdene.
Julie Christie may have given her own spirit to the vivacious farm girl turned landowner in 1967, but after watching Mulligan transform once again, it seems there isn't a modern actress on the market who is so uniquely up to the task of bringing Bathsheba back to life.
When her character — head held high — tells her inherited workers calmly and assertively that it is "her intention to astonish you all," it's impossible not to feel tremors of excitement. You believe her.
Indeed, the most astonishing aspect of "Far From the Madding Crowd" is that Hardy's depiction of a free-willed woman attempting to establish herself professionally is not all that dated, even over 140 years later. While Danish director Vinterberg ("The Hunt") took pains to recreate Hardy's imagined setting, shooting in the unchanged English countryside, the themes and emotions throughout are resonant and alarmingly modern.
Vinterberg and his actors don't let the antiquated mores upstage the truth and humanity behind every interaction.
The heart of the story is Bathsheba's relationships with her three suitors: The loyal sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the timid and mannered William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and the rakish, petulant Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge).
After a youth spent in near poverty, Bathsheba inherits a farm from her deceased uncle that she chooses to manage without the help of a man. Proposals come with alarming frequency, but, knowing her fortune in having financial independence, Bathsheba takes her time in considering (and often rejecting) her stable of prospects. She does not toy with the men either, as every decision — and every mistake — is made with complete honesty.
While Sheen is appealing as Boldwood and Sturridge gets the most showy moments to play with (including the famous swordplay flirtation), it is Belgian actor Schoenaerts who upstages the others in his role as Gabriel Oak. Part of that is because the filmmakers decided that Bathsheba and Gabriel's evolving friendship would be the driving narrative. But, Schoenaerts also has that rare combination of charisma and understated grace that makes even a half-realized accent forgivable.
Touted as a romance, "Far From the Madding Crowd" succeeds thematically because it isn't entirely about finding love as we've come to understand it in the movies. It acknowledges and embraces the complications of living a life and is more interested in Bathsheba's evolution as a person.
Also, Vinterberg's classical, pastoral aesthetic recalls the heyday of the Merchant Ivory films, without the corny sentimentality of their lesser imitators.
If costume dramas aren't your cup of tea, "Far From the Madding Crowd" is unlikely to convince otherwise. But, perhaps a generation of girls who adore "The Hunger Games'" Katniss Everdeen might find themselves interested enough to dive into the world of the heroine who inspired their modern idol.
"Far From the Madding Crowd," a Fox Searchlight release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some sexuality and violence." Running time: 119 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr