In a nutshell, Thomas Vinterberg‘s Far From The Madding Crowd (Fox Searchlight, 5.1) is not a “woman’s film,” although I presume that over-25 or over-30 women will comprise the core audience this weekend. I sat down with a guarded attitude but I was relaxing and settling in only minutes after it began. This is a trimmer, more condensed adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel than John Schlesinger’s lavish 1967 version, which ran 169 minutes. Vinterberg’s film is 50 minutes shorter, but is just as flavorful and well-scented as the Schlesinger, which I haven’t seen in ages but which no one seems to have really loved. The Vinterberg is a convincing, well-structured capturing of a complex story of twists and turns and ups and downs, and in a way that doesn’t drag in the least. Early on I was muttering to myself, “Wow, this is about as tight and fat-free as one could expect…not a wasted line or shot…I really wasn’t expecting this kind of discipline.”

There can be no question that Vinterberg’s film is more stirringly acted, certainly when you compare Carey Mulligan‘s Bathsheba Everdeen (accent on the first syllable of the first name) to Julie Christie‘s.  The ’67 Bathsheba was a somewhat flighty, whimsical beauty who seemed to almost casually glide from event to event and romance to romance, but Mulligan’s is made of sterner stuff — a woman of passion and steel spine, or quite the spirited feminist by the measuring stick of Victorian England. Mulligan is magnificent and in no way girly-ish or dreamy-eyed. The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw wrote that Mulligan’s face “has a pinched girlish prettiness combined with a shrewd, slightly schoolmistressy intelligence — the sort of face which can appear very young and really quite old at the same time.” Well put.

It also needs to be understood that Michael Sheen‘s William Boldwood, the oldest and most financially stable of Bathsheba’s three suitors, finds elements of true pathos.  This is one of the saddest rejected-male performances I’ve ever witnessed. I’m usually not moved by guys who don’t “get the girl”, or, in Sheen/Boldwood’s case, guys who never had a chance in the first place. But my heart went out to Sheen. His acting reminded me what it feels like to be told by a beautiful woman that “you’re a nice guy but I’m not going to be intimate with you or anything along those lines….sorry but you don’t do it for me” or, much worse, the dreaded “can we be friends?”

This is Sheen’s finest performance since he played Tony Blair in The Queen, and — take this to the bank — the first male supporting performance in 2015 that can be called award-worthy.

Bathsheba’s other two suitors are played by the brawny, watery-eyed Matthias Schoenaerts, who might experience a little breakout heat from this, and the rakishly dashing Tom Sturridge with the red jacket and the swordplay and the irresponsibility and the drinking.

Far From The Madding Crowd (Fox Searchlight, 5.1.15) is basically about Everdene falling in and out with these three. This happens, that happens, things fall though, etc. Two or three weeks ago Variety‘s Scott Foundas suggested that at its core, Far From The Madding Crowd is a rural 19th Century playing of The Dating Game. That indicates a kind of vapidity or tediousness that Vinterberg’s film simply doesn’t possess. It has a lot more meat on its bones than you might expect going in.

We know, of course, which aspiring fellow Bathsheba ought to end up with and should end up with at the finish — i.e., Schoenhaerts’ well-muscled sheep farmer. Always choose the dull, dependable guy who will get up at 4 am to milk the cows and who will clean up after himself and do the dishes after dinner.

It’s obvious from the trailer that Charlotte Bruus Christensen‘s cinematography — exquisite, sophisticated — knows from light and shadows, from greens and browns and golden ambers.

I’m not going to once again express my personal disappointment over Mulligan having married the feral-eyed, mastodon-like Marcus Mumford. It’s weird but what can you do or say? I understand and respect that she married for trust and comfort, but Mumford, for me, will always be the guy who got in the way of the Mulligan mystique. Because of this reservation I can’t be Mulligan’s fanboy any more, or so I’m given to understand. I’ll be seeing her perform in Skylight on Sunday, May 3rd, but no backstage visits or any of that jazz.

I should  mention again that I’ll never forgive Dean Martin and Mitchell Parish for changing the original Thomas Hardy title to “away from the maddening crowd” in “Volare.”

Make no mistake — Far From The Madding Crowd is a film that any serious film lover will get and appreciate and savor to the last cut. I wasn’t expecting that much, certainly not that I’d be seeing 2015’s first serious surprise. But that’s what it is.