Though it's hard to believe in 2015, there was a time when fictional heroines didn't have to be role models, when a character's backbone could be more than just a row of vertebrae lined up into teachable moments. It's wonderful that modern readers love Jane Austen -- we still warm to the vitality of her characters, and to their defiant code of self-determination, for good reason -- but the popular conception of her work has recast it as a kind of female-empowerment petting zoo, a place to go for "You go, girl!" strokes.
Is Thomas Hardy, whose socially progressive views found their greatest expression in his women characters, among them the bold and autonomous Bathsheba Everdene, next in line for the Austen treatment? Please let the answer be no. But Thomas Vinterberg's pedantic and twisted adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd is a bad sign. Its Bathsheba -- a Victorian-era woman who inherits and capably runs a farm, and also rejects the humble man who truly loves her in favor of a shallow but dashing soldier -- is all wrong, and it's hard to know where to lay the blame. As written by Hardy, Bathsheba is bracingly whole and human; here she's been outlined, and thus circumscribed, by an eager student's highlighter. Carey Mulligan too often squinches her face in a self-satisfied smile, and when she comes out with a line like "I have no need of a husband" -- a bit of dialogue completely in tune with Hardy's sensibilities -- it's less a natural outburst than like something she read in a pamphlet.