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far_from_the_madding_crowd_carey_mulligan_tom_sturridge_1“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”  My rating: B (Opening wide on May 15)

119 minutes  | MPAA rating: PG-13

Like the 1874 novel on which it is based, the latest screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd has so many melodramatic plot twists that it’s almost laughable.

Yet we don’t laugh. Romance, tragedy and social insight percolate throughout this story of a woman who revels in and suffers because of her stubborn independence.

The success of the book — and any film based on it — lies in Hardy’s ahead-of-his-times feminism, his depiction of subtle psychological states, and the beauty of his language (or visual style, in the case of a movie).

With Carey Mulligan as the strong-willed Bathsheba Everdene and a supporting cast of mostly-solid players, the new “Far from the Madding Crowd” nicely balances those elements.

But a warning: Those who fondly recall John Schlesinger’s 1967 version with Julie Christie may find the approach of director Thomas Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nichols too muted and subdued.

The earlier film had big dramatic moments and oozed a pastoral passion eagerly embraced by its major stars (Christie, Peter Finch, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp). But the Danish Vinterberg, a founder of Scandinavia’s austere Dogme 95 film movement, aims for low-keyed realism rather than high drama.

We first encounter Bathsheba on horseback. She is riding in the proper sidesaddle fashion, but when she’s sure nobody is watching Bathsheba  throws a leg over the big beast and takes off on  a glorious gallop — man-style.

That scene and her encounter with a neighboring shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), establish her as a woman with big aspirations even if she has no idea of  how to achieve them.

When after just one encounter Oaks asks her to marry him, Bathsheeba turns him down.

“I would hate to be some man’s property,” she says, adding, “You would grow to despise me.”

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