Danish director Vinterberg (The Celebration; The Hunt), might have been expected to turn in a challenging reading of the Thomas Hardy novel, one to loosen the grip of John Schlesinger's 1967 version starring Julie Christie and Terence Stamp.
But the new adaptation, written by David Nicholls, who so brilliantly adapted Blake Morrison's And When Did You Last See Your Father?, is so measured and tame as to verge on the banal. Worse, two of its pivotal quartet of characters are grievously miscast.
The story is of a woman courted by three men: Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan), a woman of determination and independence, has no sooner arrived to live with her aunt in the country than she is batting away a proposal of marriage from a neighbour, the frugal, decent shepherd Gabriel Oak (Schoenaerts). She has no desire to be tied down, she says.
When he suffers a reversal of fortune and she inherits the farm, the gap between them widens further. He takes a job as her shepherd as she deals with two other suitors in turn, one cruelly - the middle-aged, well-to-do and abjectly infatuated Boldwood (Sheen) - and one dangerously - the dashing soldier Frank Troy (Sturridge). Things end badly for more than one of the above.
There's a lot to like about the new version, not least Mulligan's spirited performance, which makes Christie's look like a shampoo commercial: her Bathsheba has dirt under her fingernails and messed-up hair and a ferocious pluck that just fails to hide her uncertainty both as farmer and woman.
When she tells her workers, "It is my intention to astonish you all", it is as if she is daring us to disagree. Sheen, too, is profoundly impressive in the smallest and most thankless of the four main roles. Quite unmanned by a longing he can scarcely understand, he remains heartbreakingly decent and the scene in which he speaks of his grief to the most improbable of listeners is a perfect gem.
But Schoenaerts, struggling with an English accent, is far too ruggedly handsome for the part, and Sturridge is a disaster, as dashing as a teacher's pet, and more prat than cad.
The famous swordplay-seduction scene is beautifully shot, but I kept picturing a real bloke showing up and smashing his head in.
It rather undermines Bathsheba's proto-feminist potential to have her fall in love at first sight in the lamplight at all, but to have her swept off her feet by this twerpish Troy strongly argues against her sanity.
Amid all this, the key and heavily freighted subplot about Troy's doomed love, Fanny Robin, is dealt with almost in passing.
The film's production values are beyond reproach, in particular Charlotte Bruus Christensen's sumptuous cinematography and Craig Armstrong's haunting score. But the casting disasters and the schematic deliberation of the story make for a flat and empty ending.
Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge, Michael Sheen
Measured and tame