Friday, 11 September 2015

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

It seems like only a year ago that The Maze Runner shuffled into the multiplexes wielding an interesting concept and a middling finished product. 

But it's true. Only a year ago, debut director Wes Ball dove headlong into the crowded waters of young-adult-literature adaptations and emerged with a green-lit sequel deal that signalled, rather accurately, the public's appetite for still more post-apocalypse teen thrillers.

In 12 months, then, Ball has managed to corral a meatier second instalment that chugs along with admirable confidence in its own limited ability. Removed from the claustrophobia of the eponymous maze, film two, The Scorch Trials, tackles infinitely broader themes: the survival of the species at the expense of the few; the expendability of the powerless; man's proclivity for conflict during times of peril. 

In spite of the expanded canvas and spirited performances, however, there is a distinct lack of originality here. With its predictable dialogue and a cornucopia of well-worn dystopian tropes, Ball's film will struggle to compel as much as it fails to appal.

Proceedings pick up immediately from where The Maze Runner departed, the small band of capable teens – led by Dylan O'Brien's determined, if perpetually confused, Thomas – having been transported from their prison of the last movie to a fortress inhabited by a mysterious, well-equipped group purporting to oppose the evil WCKD corporation. That rescuer-in-chief Janson (Aiden Gillen, leering as usual) should have ulterior motives is obvious and before long Thomas is scrambling for freedom alongside his devoted fellow travellers.

Making few allowances for those who have neither read James Dashner's terribly serious literary series, nor seen the previous entry (in which the existence of more than one mighty labyrinth was finally revealed as being a significant plot point), The Scorch Trials pitches its young heroes into a breathless chase movie peppered with the occasional slice of visual artistry – the vastness of the wastes beyond civilisation, "the Scorch", is undeniably impressive – and a good deal of self-belief. 

The middle third, too, is solid, Ball creating genuine tension in the detritus of our fallen planet. Indeed, for a time, there exists potential for something beyond the rote conventions of the genre. Unfortunately, it doesn't last. Robbed of its strongest central element, namely the bio-mechanical purgatory that was the maze, this is a picture that swiftly runs out of steam. 

Latterly, Thomas and friends are sucked into a kind of Terminator-meets-The-Hunger-Games mishmash of familiar futuristic material. From the efforts of ghostly (but not really) resistance fighters the Right Arm, to the main character's inevitable renaissance as a revolutionary leader, the puzzling story never moves beyond a narrative that is still less exciting than all concerned appear to believe. The arrival of shadow-dwelling mutants, hiding in a set that the Walking Dead crew might consider luxurious, is little more than a tired nod to the zeitgeist, our cast's various frantic escapes from putrid clutches having been witnessed in every zombie movie ever made.

In spite of appearances by seasoned vets like Barry Pepper and Giancarlo Esposito, this is a film that rests on Thomas's skinny shoulders. Wielding enough charisma to pass as a leading man, O'Brien does a sound job conveying the gravity of his situation. 

Yet, late on, as events crumble around him into a haze of explosions and snooze-inducing action, one is left with the impression that O'Brien looks most perturbed by the fact that Thomas's fate, deferred until Dashner concludes the saga, should feel so predictable. 

Friday, 14 August 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

When Guy Ritchie first announced himself to the movie-going public in 1998, he did so at the helm of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a leering, grimy crime caper oozing with mischief and an innate sense of bobbing Cockney swagger. Part winking homage to the gangster genre’s lower end, part caustic comedy, Ritchie’s debut was an instant classic, its template refined  – though still in place – for 2000’s Snatch.

The latter might have attracted Brad Pitt to become part of an ensemble cast, but it promptly hid him behind bad dentures and an impenetrable Irish traveller argot. These were films working to Ritchie’s own rules, their cheekiness unchecked by the desires of the mass market.

Some subsequent missteps (Swept Away, Revolver) aside, the director’s talent was obvious. His two-film update of the Sherlock Holmes mythology carried more polish, a big-budget sheen and charismatic leads in Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, but there was discernible grit there also, from its steampunk noir to the title character’s only slightly amusing psychological fragility. 

Four years on from when Holmes and Watson last bickered and brawled their way through A Game of Shadows, Ritchie finally returns with The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. While a feature update of the kitsch sixties television series is hardly something the public was crying out for, this feels far from a film without spirit or significance.

As sweet as a bag of candy floss, and just as substantial, U.N.C.L.E. is a terrifically entertaining spy romp which positively embraces its irreverent, eyebrow-cocking approach. This relatively low-key entry into the din of the summer movie market will attract less business than its bruising competitors, but the stage is set for a new franchise trading on the modern fondness for the Don Draper age.

The plot here is an unpretentious mix of sub-Bond globetrotting and Mission Impossible’s derring-do. Enemy agents Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are thrown together, across the Iron Curtain, to trace a missing nuclear scientist and prevent a worldwide apocalypse – courtesy of Elizabeth Debicki’s neo-fascist princess, Victoria Vinciguerra – in the process.

Sitting on the right side of satire, the mood is relatively breezy, the slick action sequences wielding a sense of frivolity that the director does well to keep in check. Mercifully, Ritchie has not forgotten how to strut and however shallow U.N.C.L.E. proves to be, it does not lack for stylish execution.  

As before, his strongest gambit is a masculine double header and the movie purrs when both Cavill and Hammer are sparking off each other, their mix of antagonism and scolding disapproval covering the same ground made so fertile by Holmes and Watson’s familiar partnership.   

As Cold War spies, this preposterously handsome duo are natural adversaries, yet they produce chemistry from their mismatch, Solo’s wry charm offset by Kuryakin’s stiffer Russian formality. That said, both switch characteristics with enough frequency that they move beyond stereotypes. The American, for all the sharpness of his charisma, exhibits a cold commitment to the mission, driven on by backstory somewhat removed from the upstanding morality suggested by his polite personae and sartorial elegance. Equally, his KGB counterpart is smoother than initial impressions.

Cavill’s confidence, in particular, represents a refreshing reminder of gifts tamped down by the chiselled-jaw heroism required to animate Superman. In fact, Solo has a faintly unsettling presence that Cavill is quick to manipulate, all passive aggression and latent danger. 

Beside him, Hammer goes some way to expunging The Lone Ranger from the collective memory with a layered performance that demands he be more than the straight man. Kuryakin, plagued by personal baggage, comes with a suppressed predisposition to violence that is only ever hinted at, yet Hammer – carrying, as he always does, the expression of someone who thinks before he speaks – paints him as something other than a blunt tool. Indeed, his interaction with the heroine of the piece, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), skirts the edges of lust and attraction, playing off her stubbornness and his ordered sense of duty. 

Portraying the daughter of the aforementioned scientists, Vikander is unmissable. From Anna Karenina to Ex Machina, via A Royal Affair and A Testament of Youth, the Swedish actress has, until now, excelled in roles demanding furrowed brows and more than a dollop of sadness.

Ritchie allows her to cut loose here. As exquisite as ever, Vikander nevertheless gets to dance like an idiot, drink like a fish, trash a hotel room and scowl at female fashions, embracing the innuendo-heavy dialogue along the way. She also manages to pull off the prettiest hangover ever committed to the screen. Disdainful of the testosterone flowing around her, Gaby channels the cynical viewer questioning if all this silliness is really necessary.

Once the finely tailored villains prance into view, however, that quandary does loom rather large over U.N.C.L.E.’s latter half. Debicki serves as an effective ice maiden, but the reasons for her need to possess and distribute world-ending technology are never explored. Maybe she’s a disaffected Nazi, maybe she’s just a really horrible person; either way, the truth stays hidden.

Given that so much effort – including a thrilling final ten minutes – goes into foiling whatever plan she has hatched, it is a serious failing that so little attention is afforded to this strand of an otherwise straightforward narrative. 

Hope for some clarity arrives in the form of a sarcastic Hugh Grant (is there any other kind of Hugh Grant?), whose natty British naval spook spits out handy exposition to go with his arsenal of light barbs. Unfortunately, even he seems unaware of what’s going on, concentrating instead on securing Her Majesty’s interests with a dash of his own machinations.

This would be hobbling if the rest of the film wasn’t such fun. In judging his tone so keenly, Ritchie has crafted a glossy franchise starter with foundations solid enough for any sequel to build upon. With the U.N.C.L.E. moniker finally introduced before the end, this is a spy ring worthy of at least one more mission.   

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Shooting for Socrates

In Northern Ireland’s sporting history, one moment stands out. 

As violence raged at home, Billy Bingham’s tight group of honest professionals set off for a World Cup. They withstood the sweltering cauldrons of a Latin summer and faced down a giant, emerging unscathed on the other side. For a small country, such feats were more than worthy of constant retellings.

Yes indeed, 1982 was glorious. Spain. Arconada. Armstrong. A 1-0 win and a place in the second round. But the story of that moment can wait.

What audiences must endure, instead, is James Erskine’s Shooting for Socrates, a chronicle of Mexico ’86, in which Northern Ireland scored two goals and earned a solitary point. That journey, seemingly, deserves a cinematic airing before the piffling exploits of four years prior. 

To describe Shooting for Socrates as ill conceived would be to undersell its profound shortcomings. Insipid and less an ode to the beauty of football than a wet Wednesday evening at the Ballymena Showgrounds, Erskine’s picture displays occasional flickers of a heart, only for such spirit to be consumed by a malaise touting itself as something approximating light entertainment. 

Both the director and co-screenwriter Marie Jones are not, it must be noted, wholly unfamiliar with their instant genre. Erskine’s One Night in Turin documented the epic battle between England and Germany at Italia ’90. Jones famously penned A Night in November, an extraordinary play capturing the organic nature of sport as a uniting force. Thus, it is all the more alarming that this latest trip into the milieu should be so abject. 

Of all the faults that run through Shooting for Socrates from beginning to end, however, its most severe failing is one of believability. Quite simply, and in spite of its much heralded local flavouring, not a moment feels real. 

That superficiality extends across both of the main storylines, the first of which revolves around mercurial youngster David Campbell (Nico Mirallegro), who is called up for the World Cup while still breaking into the first team at Nottingham Forest. What might have been a charming coming-of-age tale quickly becomes lost thanks to an uneven tone, drama, comedy and a dash of icky Norn Iron politics all jostling for position, largely without success. In spite of his own personal duel with that tricky Ulster accent, Mirallegro seems enthusiastic enough, yet his arc is so uninteresting, his character so artificial, that the significance of his debut coming against the mighty Brazilians — their titular captain included — delivers little by the end. 

Richard Dormer’s salt-of-the-earth docker, Arthur, fares just as badly. With the team’s myriad qualifiers and group games as a backdrop, Dormer attempts to steer his cheeky pre-pubescent son, Tommy (Art Parkinson), past the pitfalls of life using Greek philosophy and football as his primary tools. Dormer and his onscreen wife (a chirpy Bronagh Gallagher) are left to feed on scraps. Both are fine actors but there is little they can do to stem the tide of hollow dialogue and limited dramatic tension plodding about them. Even the Troubles get off lightly, appearing as inconvenient outbursts of casual rioting rather than a bitter civil war rife tearing society asunder. 

Only Conleth Hill, playing commentator Jackie Fullteron, emerges unscathed: wry, silver-tongued and bouffant. Hill’s class is obvious and next to him Gerard Jordan mines genuine laughs as loyal cameraman Albert Kirk. 

Sadly, when the focus moves from this pair, Shooting for Socrates dies under the weight of its own obvious limitations. At one stage, Arthur and Tommy cycle along a road in the Belfast docklands, the very post-1986 Hilton hotel and BT tower firmly located in the centre of the screen. The Mexican excursion itself is almost as genuine as the period setting, Bingham (John Hannah, speaking in a Scottish brogue throughout) bringing to the world’s mightiest sporting event 11 players, one assistant and an assortment of PE gear. 

Even the eponymous Socrates (Sergio Mur) is quickly forgotten. Viewed through crackling television images early on, with wide-eyed confusion, like some kind of chain-smoking, poetry-espousing alien, he is granted barely a moment in the flesh to reinforce the hype. As Brazil crush Northern Ireland in the least inspiring cinematic finale ever committed to film — a game recreated by the cast that looks more like a session of capable seven-aside than the real thing — our bearded genius is nowhere to be seen. 

As a helpful caption informs the audience more than once, Campbell’s family live in a mysterious country called ‘Southern Ireland’, a nation that allegedly contains Donegal, the island’s northernmost county. Where is this place? 

Perhaps Socrates can tell us. Does anyone know where he went?

A version of this article was first published here

Friday, 29 May 2015

San Andreas

There's no denying it, disaster movies stopped being interesting many years ago. It probably occurred around the time Roland Emmerich destroyed the world again in The Day After Tomorrow. Respectable box office takings aside, audiences haven't been treated to original ideas by any of the genre’s recent entries, regardless of changing locations (Poseidon — water) or styles (Into the Storm — first person).

Brad Peyton’s hulking San Andreas is unlikely to change that pattern. It bears all the usual hallmarks: family strife set against catastrophic events, attractive leads and an unbending central figure pressing on through the chaos for the sake of his kin. With its glossy CGI and an unhinged level of destruction, this is not a film trading in subtlety or nuance.

That said, the presence of Dwayne Johnson as its figurehead renders San Andreas a far more likeable beast than many of its progenitors. The artist formerly known as The Rock is a seriously underrated actor who is quickly cornering the market in uncompromising heroes, low on flaws and high on integrity. With a physique to rival the Terminator and a moral compass set by Atticus Finch, Johnson’s rescue pilot is a man for whom the word ‘capable’ was originally conceived. "Just get up against something sturdy," he intones to a crowd of people saved from being squashed late on. If you don't stick with this guy, you're an idiot.

The story is hardly complex. When a series of massive earthquakes tear through California, Los Angeles Fire Department stalwart Ray Gaines (Johnson) eschews piffling official duties to rescue his estranged wife, Emma (the ever solid Carla Gugino), and their daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario). The latter is stuck in a San Francisco undergoing some major redevelopment and so, naturally, Ray has no intention of leaving her to a watery fate. 

The subsequent picture is largely free of surprises and in no way could Peyton’s film be described as accomplished, or profound. Yet, it wields an unmistakable charm, not least in the form of Johnson, and mines genuine peril from beneath the layers of digital mayhem. If there is a more impressive piece of pure cinema this year than the tsunami hurtling towards the Golden Gate Bridge, Emma and Ray scrambling to beat the crest, then it will be a fine sight indeed. 

A cheekiness, too, sets San Andreas apart, whether it is the impromptu skydive into AT&T Park or Kylie Minogue’s bizarre cameo. Beyond that, Paul Giamatti is soon on hand as the ignored scientist-forecaster (aren’t they all? Maybe we should listen to them) who suffers a genuine loss to sit alongside his exasperated encounters with red dots on a computer screen. 

The flaws are obvious, of course. A standard romance between pretty youngsters is crowbarred into proceedings, even as the waves crash down, and Peyton — a Canadian — makes room for the most brazen piece of jingoistic nonsense this side of the Super Bowl. If the sight of a massive Stars and Stripes unfurling in the haze of a dystopian dusk doesn’t make you guffaw, then you probably watch Fox News more than you should.

Check your brain at the door, however, and there are guilty pleasures to be had. 

Friday, 15 May 2015


It is almost 20 years since La Haine exploded onto cinema screens, summoning the rage that flowed, and flows still, through the urban arteries of les banlieues. Mathieu Kassovitz’s searing breakthrough stood as a visceral snapshot of life in the French outskirts, a stage where liberté, égalité and fraternité are as absent as the opportunities they espouse. 

A monochrome calling card for a generation, La Haine’s power, however stylised, lay in its uncomfortable treatment of a subject many in France would prefer to ignore: that the abandoned and impoverished ethnic peoples on the fringes of the nation’s singularly unbending identity could no longer be ignored. 

Two decades later, our post-Charlie Hebdo reality seems a savage reminder that those profound societal problems — alienation, displacement, exclusion from the state to which loyalty is expected — have metastasised into something much darker and infinitely more disturbing.

For Kassovitz and La Haine in 1995, read Céline Sciamma and Girlhood in 2015. A leading figure in France’s new wave of filmmakers, Sciamma has, in this instance, fashioned a poised and fascinating picture that moves more than it exhilarates, trading in sad acceptance rather than outright anger. It may be a coming-of-age event anchored, quite hopelessly, in the far reaches of modern Paris but Sciamma has designs beyond simply gawping at ghetto life. In those places labelled quartiers difficiles, to survive is to triumph; and it is the women, arguably, whose stories need to be heard. 

Bande de Filles (Gang of Girls), to give the film its original and more apposite title, completes a loose trilogy that Sciamma set up with Water Lilies and Tomboy. In this release, the wonderfully poised Karidja Touré plays Marieme, a diffident 16-year-old whose modest high-rise existence becomes more exciting when she befriends a trio of fellow teenage girls, as swaggering as she is restrained. 

Now a four-piece, Marieme, Adiatou, Fily and Lady, the leader, bunk off school, hustling and scowling their way through otherwise dull lives that are hemmed in by status, class and the inherent misogyny of their cultural structure. Indeed, in spite of the sullen preening seen by the outside world, their aspirations are heartbreakingly modest. 

That fact is best underlined early on. Having shaken down enough of their peers to afford a night out, they make for an anonymous hotel, rent a room, enjoy a few drinks and try on some (stolen) clothes. The sequence is capped off by a joyful, splendidly innocent karaoke rendition of Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’ and Sciamma clearly wishes to poke holes in any notion that these youngsters are all that different from their white middle-class compatriots.

Where the director excels is in drawing towering performances from a troupe of raw, untrained and street-cast black actresses chosen for the relative novelty of their presence in French cinema, as much as for their obvious gifts. Chattering in an argot set to machine-gun speed, each displays a distinct trait that reinforces the whole. Lady (a bewitching Assa Sylla) is the finger-clicking queen bee; Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) personifies the spirit of the group; Fily (Mariétou Touré) serves as its steady backbone. They inhabit a milieu that demands respect, and violence — a theme that Sciamma chooses not to fixate upon — represents the best protection for fragile reputations. 

That being said, Girlhood is Marieme’s story. She travels a road which yields more questions than answers. Allowed to slip out of the system by a faceless, apathetic teacher, ungoverned by an aloof mother whose own features are never fully visible, she must navigate her awakening without the support many of us take for granted. Her journey is not uneventful; in the hands of a lesser talent it might even appear trite. Touré, however, turns in a multi-faceted portrayal ripe with emotion and held fast by an inspiring sense of resolve. There is even an androgynous quality to her acting that conjures an air of mystery to sit alongside an impassive, unknowable expression.

Stripped of Marieme’s three companions, the final leg sags somewhat thanks to an ancillary drug-dealing arc that registers as less than organic. Yet, it rallies before the credits, choosing ambiguity over the easy fix of a neat conclusion.

Sciamma’s past is marked by the plaudits heaped on her minimalist leanings and while they surface here, this is a film sporting a charge of rare style, from the neon hue creeping in on occasion to the urgent, synth-heavy score that feels less incongruous than it should. 

Above it all is a message that bears emphasising: looking out at the only continent they’ve ever known, their faces pressed against the glass of countless tower blocks and speeding express trains, the granddaughters of the colonies have myriad tales to tell. They want to join in. Open the door.

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Friday, 8 May 2015


In making Rosewater, American comedy titan Jon Stewart sought to accomplish two things. On the one hand, his debut as a writer-director is a mature, brilliantly acted account of journalistic integrity and human fortitude. 

It represents a compelling break from Stewart’s usual shtick on his nightly Comedy Central blitzkrieg, The Daily Show, a conscience-of-the-nation routine that largely involves withering, often exasperated critiques, of the idiocy that now passes for (mostly) conservative political discourse across the Atlantic. 

Equally, this is drama as the gentlest of apologies, with the message chiefly directed at its real-life central figure. Stewart's reasoning is born not of responsibility but of an indirect personal connection to the fate of one man thousands of miles away. 

Of the many facets that collude to create The Daily Show, the correspondent interviews are perhaps the most subversive. Unleashing any one of Stewart’s pompous and straight-faced sidekicks into staged exchanges with politicians, leaders and makers of the news, these are invariably absurd, slyly amusing instead of obviously hysterical. That the likes of Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver should have once made their comedy bones in this corps of intrepid funnymen speaks to the relentless quality of Stewart’s supporting acts. 

Unfortunately, however, not everyone is in on the joke. 

When London-based Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari spoke with Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones in June 2009, their meeting was clearly preposterous. Both men were in Tehran to cover Iran’s presidential election and Jones, dressed like an American special forces operator, grilled a game Bahari on, amongst other things, the best method for conducting espionage inside the country. Playing along, Bahari calmly answered Jones’s ridiculous questions with only the smallest twinkle in his eye.  

Later, in the wake of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s specious victory at the polls, as riots and disorder erupted across Persia, Bahari recorded the explosion of what its proponents would quickly label the ‘Green Revolution’, broadcasting important footage to the world. His work captured the regime’s murderous response to this wave of disenchantment and thus he came to the attention of the hysterically paranoid internal security services.

Already piqued at those inconvenient and unambiguous images, the authorities claimed that Bahari was a spy and worse: a Zionist puppet. They based their assertion, incredibly, on his Daily Show appearance. He was promptly arrested, then subjected to 118 days of solitary confinement and sustained, nonsensical interrogation. Assuming that they were genuine in their belief, it only goes to show that tyranny has little time for satire.

Drawn to his own inadvertent involvement in the matter, Stewart resolved to dramatise Bahari’s ordeal. The result is intriguing because it winds an unpredictable path; it switches moods at unexpected moments, undermining notions of Stewart’s directorial ambitions. 

In the lead role, the famously Mexican Gael García Bernal — an excellent actor, whatever the part — throws off his matinee idol charisma to portray Bahari as a bookish, serious reporter who is faintly arrogant, yet pragmatic enough to adjust to new penal surroundings rather than buck against the system for the sake of a principle. It is a nuanced performance, a testament to the trust Bernal has in a director who eschews violence and torture for something more low-key, more subtle. Where there might be misery there is a sliver of hope; when cruelty might overwhelm the story, humanity prevails. Stewart wishes to convey the truth, not sensationalism. Even Bahari’s arrest is relatively polite.

In delivering such a tone, Stewart places much of his faith in the strange dynamic that develops between Bahari and his interrogator, Javadi (The Bridge’s Kim Bodnia), an unworldly middle-ranking official — dressed, badly, in the sober Ahmadinejad uniform of open-necked shirt and sport coat — whose only remarkable trait is the fragrant rosewater that he sprays on his person. 

The older man burbles wild accusations and misshapen notions of the West, a place he does not comprehend. Soon enough, it is he, not his prisoner, who appears desperate and lost.

Bodnia carries an almost tangible whiff of insecurity — professional, intellectual, sexual — beneath his musk. With international media pressure mounting, he is under orders to produce results; he seems eager for information, any information, to pass upstairs. That fact is soon discerned by Bahari and, at this juncture, Stewart’s recognisable leanings come to the fore, imbuing an otherwise serious picture with a dash of charming irreverence that cannot fail to delight. As Javadi listens in awed silence, eyes popping, to his prisoner’s spurious accounts of carnal escapades, the comedian’s cheeky sense of farce peeks out from beneath the blindfold. 

Indeed, he even has room to invoke the odd fantastical wrinkle. Bahari enjoys meaningful conversations with the ghosts of his communist father and sister, a touching distraction from his isolation. Late on, he prances around his cell in time with an arrangement heard only by him. These unexpected flourishes define Rosewater as a film possessing higher aspirations beyond its worthy visage. 

An edited version of this article was first published here. 

Friday, 1 May 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd

In 2012, Thomas Vinterberg explored the vile spectre of paedophilia with The Hunt, an elegantly cruel movie forming around the swift destruction of a good man’s reputation at the hands of his close-knit community's baseless assumptions. Featuring the ever brilliant Mads Mikkelsen as the blameless victim of wicked rumours, the Dane’s film was as courageous as it was handsome, a bleak portrait on the smoothest canvas. 

Given the mood there, and the close working relationship with his provocative compatriot Lars Von Trier, Vinterberg seemed something of a left-field choice when it was announced that he would direct Far From the Madding Crowd, the latest take on Thomas Hardy’s 1874 classic and a pillar of the pastoral idyll. 

Remarkably, then, considering the auteur’s penchant for challenging material, his sumptuous, pleasingly traditional spin on a beloved novel features only the merest hint of a dark swirl beneath the surface. Truthfully, such is the reined-in nature of Vinterberg’s beautifully realised drama, that much of the strife invented by Hardy to plague his characters falls by the wayside, abandoned in the hope of keeping this madding crowd firmly on the straight and narrow.

Visually dazzling, featuring a host of natural performances and appropriately deferential to its wondrous source material, Far From the Madding Crowd is every inch the high-end update of a story brought to the screen more than once. Measured against John Schlesinger’s seminal interpretation from 1967 — famously starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates — Vinterberg’s iteration is, at 118 minutes, a much leaner effort. Indeed, it is in this respect that the picture disappoints, the sense that there exists much more to explore never quite dissipating as it winds its way, with undeniable grace, along a path that is familiar but significantly less involving. There is simply not enough to grab hold of. 

That said, the 2015 edition is a worthy addition to Hardy’s weighty canon, blessed with a talented cast and displaying a depth of soul to rival anything that has gone before. 

The tale is, of course, a familiar one. The educated, refined Bathsheba Everdene (Carrie Mulligan) lives with her aunt in Victorian rural Dorset, farming their modest holding and settled on finding a position as a governess. On the neighbouring farm, Matthias Schoenaerts’s Gabriel Oak is a strapping bachelor with respectable prospects, the very essence of the loyal and honest Englishman. Upon first meeting Bathsheba, Gabriel is smitten and soon asks proposes. Gently rejecting his advances, she suggests that a man as gentle and unassuming as he could never tame her wilful spirit.

When she inherits a fortune from her uncle and he sees his investment fail — a horrifying incident, conveyed in starkly finite terms — their fortunes are reversed. Eventually, Gabriel comes once more in Bathsheba’s orbit, now a mere shepherd on her burgeoning estate, all golden hay fields, burbling brooks and bucolic innocence. 

Likely still in love with his mistress, considered while she is headstrong, he remains steadfast in her employ, committed to the job he desperately requires. When both characters share the screen, the film soars. David Nicholls’s delicate script infuses their exchanges with a crackling tension, romantic rather than overtly sexual. Vinterberg discerns tangible heat beneath Mulligan’s prim and strong-willed exterior — a capable avatar for contemporary female empowerment — while Schoenaerts displays a soulful elegance that contrasts with Bates’s earthier, moulded-from-the-Wessex-soil depiction. The Belgian hides his Flemish tones beneath a neutral English inflection and excels to such an extent that his absence is keenly felt when the two other main strands of the plot come to the fore.

Neither of the competing narratives is especially uninteresting. Such is the emotional investment in the primary dynamic, however, that these equally vital elements suffer by comparison. In and of themselves, both Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge succeed in portraying wealthy farmer William Boldwood and raffish soldier Francis Troy, respectively. Boldwood’s stunted awkwardness quickly gives way to a destructive obsession with Bathsheba that owes much to her own casual disregard for his mental wellbeing; Troy exploits her unworldly naivety to amuse himself, yet is plagued by an emotional complexity that is never less than intriguing. 

No, the problems relate to pacing. Too little of the running time is dedicated to these characters, an oversight that serves to render Troy’s sensual romance with Bathsheba a fleeting and unconvincing encounter which rarely feels sincere. The finale, too, sags, a missed opportunity sadly less dramatic than it should have been. 

Those weaknesses aside, the anchoring relationship saves Vinterberg’s period piece from outright disappointment. Alongside the encroaching deterioration of the rural milieu — touched on here, though too briefly — it is Bathsheba and Gabriel who populate the main event, a pairing that tugs at the heartstrings, that courses with quiet power. If only the undercard felt as weighty.