Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd was a hit in the 19th century, but how does it hold up for a modern filmgoer? The answer is: surprisingly well. The story of Bathsheba Everdene, a young woman who ends up owning a formidable farm that comes with its fair share of trouble, is chockablock with timeless lessons about perseverance, self-determination and the value of gumption. It also doesn’t hurt that the tale is being told with the help of the impressive talents of Carey Mulligan (as Everdene), Michael Sheen (as a neighbor and suitor) and Matthias Schoenaerts (as Gabriel Oak, a farmer and a friend to Everdene).
Here, Schoenaerts recalls life on the Dorset, England set of the film, discusses why Hardy’s story has held up and reveals what he learned from some of his four-legged co-stars.
Far From The Madding Crowd was Thomas Hardy’s first big success in 1874 when it was published. What makes it important now?
A number of things: the complex look at all the dynamics between the characters and also the very modern portrayal of this independent woman, which was rare back then. Playing [Gabriel Oak], I got to embody a lot of the things I most admire in people—loyalty, truthfulness, righteousness, honestly, consistency—and that attracted me to the project.
Had you been familiar with the book before the film?
No. I learned it after I read the screenplay.
It does feel a lot more modern than it is, considering it’s about a very smart and independent woman who makes her way in what’s very much a man’s world.
Exactly. I think people can really relate to all of these characters. Men and women can relate to the men and women portrayed in this story. I think [screenwriter] David Nicholls did a great job in translating this very expansive novel and staying loyal to the source material while at the same time doing so in a way that people can relate to nowadays. It doesn’t feel like you’re watching actors in a period story; it’s translated it in a way that it feels like it could be today.
Your character is a farmer in the English countryside. He doesn’t have the easiest life. How was the workload on this film for you?
We were working pretty hard; we’d have long days when we woke up around 5 a.m. and we came home around 9 in the evening. You needed to take care of yourself and rest a lot, otherwise, you just ruin yourself and your energy. Every now and then the cast would spend time together and have a fun night out, but the work rhythm was pretty elevated and most of the time we shot around 6 day weeks.
I feel like we’ve seen you lately in a lot of period pieces. What draws you to that kind of film?
I don’t think of my films as period pieces. Of course I’m aware of it, but to me what’s most important is what story a film tells us and what it shares with the audience. What is the soul of a project? The soul is timeless. The rest is of secondary importance.
What do you think is the soul of this project?
There’s a lot of things to be taken away from this film, but in the end, to me, the main thing is that sincerity will overcome everything. Sincerity in the end is the intention that will potentially create what was meant to be.
You had a few memorable scenes alongside a feisty group of sheep. Did you learn much about tending a flock?
Yes! I learned a lot about sheep and how to do everything that my character had to do in the film. I actually learned what’s real.