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Emma Bovary dies in the end, of course, but in this new film version she never even comes to life. Tedious, literal-minded and throwing no new light on Gustave Flaubert‘s oft-filmed 1857 novel about a young provincial woman’s boredom, adulteries and extravagant spending, Sophie Barthes‘ English-language, French-made adaptation has the ever-watchable Mia Wasikowska but very little else going for it, artistically or commercially.
Although Madame Bovary is firmly ensconced in the pantheon of Western literature’s greatest works, there’s clearly something about it that resists satisfying adaptation to the screen, as it has defeated even such imposing talents as Jean Renoir, Vincente Minnelli and Claude Chabrol, not to mention the half-dozen other directors who have taken up the challenge over the decades.
Barthes, whose promising previous feature, Cold Souls, debuted at Sundance in 2009, does nothing to alter this history of frustrated attempts to crack the Flaubert code. Severely tightening the novel’s time frame from several years down to what feels like a few months, eliminating her daughter and any number of other incidents, the director and her co-screenwriter Felipe Marino take a resolutely academic approach to their task, underlining whenever they can the feminist content that’s already more than evident in the text but providing no new insights into the central character’s motivations (passion, in reaction to a dull marriage), cultural and social aspirations (upwardly mobile, toward a large city, away from a village) and attitude toward money (heedless).
Once Emma is married off to small-town doctor Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) and is unexcitingly initiated into obligatory sex in a creaky bed in her husband’s dark and uninviting house, it doesn’t take her long to begin ringing up large debts with local decorator and furnishings proprietor M. Lheureux (a brash Rhys Ifans) as she goes about lavishly brightening up the place.
It takes her only slightly longer to dare to embark upon a passionate affair with a dashing marquis (Logan Marshall-Green) and, upon rejection by him, with a very young and attentive clerk of more modest means, Leon (Ezra Miller).
The amorous and financial merde all hits the fan simultaneously, which leaves no doubt as to Flaubert’s ultimate point about the extremely limited options available to women in 19th century French society.
Unfortunately, Barthes brings nothing new to the familiar story. What she does bring, along with cinematographer Andrij Parekh, is a dreary naturalistic palette; a nonhomogeneous group of actors hopelessly split along American-, British- and French-accented lines; familiar observations about class and society divisions; and a decidedly unpersuasive rendition of a hunting sequence.
All this gives the amply talented Wasikowska less than a fighting chance to emerge from the debris with a convincing interpretation of one of the defining female figures of literature. Her pale face gives her the gift of being able to look both beautiful and plain — the better to read much into her slightest expression — but the director doesn’t realize that; the more she makes her leading lady emote heavily, the less distinctive and unlike other actresses she becomes. Underplaying is Wasikowska’s greatest strength, so the more the histrionics build toward the end, the less one engages with her.
Production: Occupant Entertainment
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Rhys Ifans, Ezra Miller, Logan Marshall-Green, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Laura Carmichael, Olivier Gourmet, Paul Giamatti
Director: Sophie Barthes
Screenwriters: Felipe Marino, Sophie Barthes, based on the novel by Gustave Flaubert
Producers: Joe Neurauter, Felipe Marino, Sophie Barthes, Jaime Mateus-Tique
Executive producers: Paul Brett, Tim Smith, Anne Sheehan, Anders Erden
Director of photography: Andrij Parekh
Production designer: Benoit Barouh
Costume designers: Valerie Ranchoux, Christian Gasc
Editor: Mikkel E.G. Nielsen
Music: Evgueni Galperine and Sacha Galperine
No rating, 118 minutes
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