The latest film adaptation of Flaubert’s classic novel presents a petulant heroine who seems to be seeking distraction rather than romance, writes Jay Stone
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Rhys Ifans, Logan Mashall-Green
Directed by: Sophie Barthes
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Running time: 118 minutes
By Jay Stone
Poor old Emma Bovary: lost in dreams of love, dead of grief, adapted into a lot of movies that — like the men who abandoned her — never quite measured up. The latest screen version (and the first directed by a woman) presents Gustave Flaubert’s tragic story as a drama about a woman who is not so much seduced by notions of romanticism as given to adultery and materialism because there’s not much else to do. You suspect that had the Internet been invented in 19th Century France, this Emma would have been content with video games and Amazon.
She’s played by Mia Wasikowska, who can project strength (in Tracks) or exotic abandon (Only Lovers Left Alive) or even lush yearning (Jane Eyre). Here though, under the direction of Sophia Barthes, she’s not much more than a petulant object of desire for a few predatory men.
Madame Bovary is difficult to adapt to the screen — previous versions include the 1949 film with Jennifer Jones, a 1991 Claude Chabrol movie with Isabelle Huppert and David Lean’s twist of the material in the 1970 epic Ryan’s Daughter — mostly because film lacks the subtlety of the written word: there’s no visual equivalent of Flaubert’s “le mot juste.” The novel created a full person; the film presents an idea.
Barthes, who also co-wrote this adaptation, dispenses with a lot of background and even with Emma’s daughter. She starts the story with a spoiler: a scene of Emma running through the woods clutching a vial of poison, then dying.
We then go back for a quick look at her upbringing in a convent and then to her marriage to the good, bland, perfectly acceptable small-town doctor Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes.) Scenes of his vigorous, dutiful performance on their wedding night tells you all you need to know on that count.
Soon, Emma is bored: disillusioned with life in the provinces, and wistful enough to attract the improper attentions of several men. These include young Leon (the almost comically spoiled-looking Ezra Miller) who steals a kiss, and the darkly handsome Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green), who steals much more. That’s nothing, however, compared left to Rhys Ifans as the ironically named Monsieur Lheureux, a local merchant who offers silks, window coverings and hand-made boots, all on easy credit. Ifans seems to be the only performer with a passion for the material, and he steals the entire picture.
Barthes concentrates on Emma’s view of this world — we get very little of how Charles views the conventions of the time, although he seems happy enough pursuing his small dreams of applying leeches to the unfortunate locals — but you can’t view this Emma Bovary in a feminist light. She’s not enough in control of events, and her desires appear so petty as to be hardly worth turning the world upside-down. Only in Paul Giamatti’s small turn as the imperious Monsieur Homais do we get a sense of the oppressive forces that Emma seeks to transcend.
Beyond the actors, however, lies a different kind of beauty that is ideally suited to film. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh evokes the everyday beauty of the French countryside, its fields both striking and commonplace, set under overcast skies that lighten only when Emma is on the way to another assignation (or buying spree.)
Likewise, her costumes are richly designed in a riot of colours that paint a picture of privilege that we know is false. The Bovarys are over-extended, and like much great literature — like all of Jane Austen, for instance — the plot ends up pivoting on the questions of wealth. When the Marquis says, “I do not have the money that you need,” it’s a far more final refusal than any romantic turning-away. Emma Bovary is shamed not by her infidelity, but by her bankruptcy.
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