Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Sophie Barthes
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Ezra Miller, Rhys Ifans, Paul Giamatti, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Logan Marshall-Green, Laura Carmichael. Olivier Gourmet. Gustave Flaubert’s 1865 brooding and bittersweet tragedy about a self destructive, adulterous 19th century housewife and her tragic fall from grace has been filmed many times, most notably by Claude Chabrol in 1991 and Vincente Minelli. There was even a more contemporary take on the character with the recent French film Gemma Bovary. And Woody Allen used Flaubert’s iconic character as the template for his Blue Jasmine, which featured an Oscar winning performance from Cate Blanchett. This latest version from Sophie Barthes (Cold Souls, etc) is a visually sumptuous period drama, but it is also emotionally cold and dry.
As the first female director to tackle the novel, Barthes brings a strong feminist quality to the familiar material. She handles the story in rather unsympathetic fashion, which is perfectly suited to the tone of Flaubert’s novel. In collaboration with script writer Felipe Marino, she has contracted the dense novel, jettisoning many characters and subplots to make it a much pacier tale here. Barthes also uses the films to explore issues of class and the place of women in the 19th century. But her direction is also rather prosaic, resulting in a film that is ultimately rather dull and lacks the requisite passion.
Australian actress Mia Wasikowska (Tracks, Alice In Wonderland, etc) steps into the role of the flighty and selfish Emma, the daughter of a pig farmer who is educated in a convent and then married off to the rather dull country physician Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). But she quickly finds that life in provincial France as the wife of a country doctor is rather tedious, and she is often left home alone while Charles is out visiting patients. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Emma seeks solace in the arms of handsome young law student Leon (Ezra Miller, from We Need To Talk About Kevin, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, etc), until her passion drives him away. She also embarks on a torrid affair with the handsome and wealthy Marquis D’Andervilliers (Logan Marshall-Green, from Prometheus, etc). There is also some retail therapy with the cunning and smooth talking merchant Monsieur Lheureux (Rhys Ifans), who provides her with all the creature comforts she desires as she runs up a mountain of debts.
Having previously played a similarly doomed and miserable literary heroine in Jane Eyre, Wasikowska is a great fit for Flaubert’s flawed and emotionally fragile Madame Bovary who pays dearly for succumbing to temptation. She brings strength and a suitably enigmatic quality to her unsympathetic performance. Paul Giamatti brings his usual sleazy charm to his role as Homais, the obsequious chemist, who convinces Charles to operate on an unfortunate local with a club foot. Both Miller and Logan-Green are fairly bland as Emma’s younger suitors. Ifans is a standout as the sleazy merchant.
Bathes is also quite faithful to the language of Flaubert’s novel and the period detail is quite authentic. The film looks exquisite with superb costumes, and some gorgeous cinematography from Andrij Parekh, who uses handheld cameras and natural lighting to good effect. He also uses close-ups to capture Emma’s feelings of being closed in and confined by the strictures of both the times and her small town setting.