Long before her namesake kicked ass in the Capitol, there was Thomas Hardy’s Victorian games-player, Bathsheba Everdene. Less passive than Hardy’s most famous heroine, Tess, feisty farmer Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan) tries to play the field, figuratively and literally: a proto-feminist hoping to wed for love rather than obligation, and run her business against a bucolic backdrop.
Having inherited wealth and a rural estate, she’s also independent enough to get embroiled in a love quadrant; turning down marriage to solid shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), getting in too deep with pernicious cavalryman Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge) and enflaming rich, reserved neighbour William Boldwood (Michael Sheen).
Cinematic and romantic on paper, Miss E’s girl-power pastoral passions deliver an idiot-proof primer for any filmmaker. David Nicholls hasn’t messed with the formula, cleaving closely to the book (while newly emphasising female empowerment), and The Hunt director Thomas Vinterberg allows the Dorset countryside, impeccable costuming and production design to do the talking, creating an uncontroversial, classy and faithful adaptation.
Making this relevant, then – while banishing memories of John Schlesinger’s still sizzling (and recently re-released) 1967 version – is in the casting and chemistry. Mulligan is a rosy-cheeked, lively delight as Bathsheba and she generates decent heat with a Labrador-like Schoenaerts and too-boyish Sturridge.
But the heart of the tale is driven by Sheen’s delicately proud, pained performance as the third man. And it’s in scenes with Sheen that Mulligan is at her sparkling and most seductive best; whether fighting for equality in the corn exchange, singing a candlelit duet over a lush harvest supper or exchanging baleful looks across a ballroom.