This is a very pretty movie, but with plot holes large enough to drive a flock of Dorset sheep through. It’s a film where the main character, Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan), promises to “astonish you all,” but if she does, it’s only by her inconsistency. It’s a tale that focuses on three men about whom it tells us very little; it’s a long movie where too little time is spent telling a story and too much time is devoted to long silences. The male characters, especially, are short-changed by the thin script telling them to look pensive, prosperous, persistent, daring and dashing – and giving them few other hints as to what their characters are all about. Author Thomas Hardy, on whose classic novel this is based, is known for creating tough-but-torn heroines – consider his Tess of the d’Urbervilles – who are punished by fate and poor decisions.
But he writes also with a sense of Victorian restraint. We know where Bathsheba will end up; we know it will be painful; we’re not sure she’ll agree to go. If this is intended to be a character study, we need characters with depth; here, most can be fully described in sound bytes. The musical score of lush strings sweeps and soars over sun-drenched landscapes and multi-colored night skies. Scenes are often dark, lit only by fire-light as characters emerge, half-hidden in the shadows. This is Masterpiece Theatre meets Merchant and Ivory. And yet with all this external beauty, Director Thomas Vinterberg has chosen to tell his story largely on Mulligan’s expressive face. She is joyful and jealous; proper, proud and pragmatic; reserved and reluctant; confident, charming, and confused. She’s good, but even at the end, for all she has endured, she never seems vulnerable enough to fall in love. “It’s difficult for a woman to express her feelings in a language chiefly developed by men to express theirs,” she says at one point. We wish she had tried harder.