Director Sophie Barthes (Cold Souls) adapts for the screen what has been called “the perfect novel” — Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary — which is a hefty task that the relative newcomer filmmaker perhaps isn’t quite prepared to handle. The formidable Mia Wasikowska is cast in the title role as one of literature’s most famous social climbers and doomed heroines.
Wasikowska (The Kids are Alright, Jane Eyre, Defiance) plays Bovary, who youthfully marries a country doctor, played by Henry Lloyd-Hughes (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Anna Karenina). They settle into a sedate life of routine and repression in a small French town. But after attending a hunting party hosted by a dashing young aristocrat, Bovary has gotten a taste for the finer things, and begins trying to “improve” herself with fine clothes and expensive objet d’art for her home. She procures these goods from a sleazeball merchant, played by Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill, Spiderman). To distract herself from her husband, who she finds increasingly provincial and dull, she sets about having affairs with men about town, dreaming of moving to bigger and brighter things. The aristocratic Marquis is on that list, as well as the young lawyer Leon Dupuis, played by Ezra Miller (who was brilliant in We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Perks of Being a Wallflower). She amasses an enormous amount of debt from all her spending, and as she tries to maintain her tenuous hold on her situation, she sinks further and further into despair.
The novel is one of the great pieces of French literature, and is required reading for anyone interested in 19th century gender politics. The brilliance of the novel was that, while Bovary was spending profligately and sleeping around, whilst her sad, doting husband was wilfully blind to her actions, you still felt for her, and sympathized with her actions. As a woman trapped in a small town, tied to a husband she didn’t love, she had little else to do but drown her sorrows in fashion and easy sex, and hope it might lead her to something better. The film draws out none of that sympathy, and Wasikowska’s Bovary comes across as a cold, arrogant young woman hell-bent on doing what she wants. You don’t really sympathize with her character whatsoever, perhaps until the very end, but even that is a stretch. The flat portrayal is less a slight against Wasikowska, who is generally a brilliant actor — a quiet force to be reckoned with — but more in the screenplay adaptation, which guts the novel of its intricacies and grey areas. I’d also concede, despite my admiration for her, that Wasikowska is somewhat miscast here.
The novel was written in 1857, and yet its themes are still relevant and relatable. I would expect an adaptation would breathe new life into an old story, crafting a film for a new generation of Bovary audience. Instead, what we’re left with is a tepid costume drama, with little emotional heart or innovative perspective. While I understand it is a tragedy, it is also utterly humourless, and takes itself very seriously for a film whose central character is depicted as being rather frivolous. The remaining cast isn’t bad; Ifans does a great job of walking the line between charming and creepy, and even Paul Giamatti shows up in a cameo as a colleague of Monsieur Bovary. The costumes in this costume drama are also excellently rendered; vibrantly-coloured silks, that reflect Emma Bovary’s inner personality. But beyond this, there’s not much to maintain interest. At times, Barthes seems like she’s attempted to inject richness and depth into the story, but seems constrained to do so within a two hour running time.
Ultimately, it’s fairly forgettable. For fans of the story, Claude Chabrol’s adaptation starring the immensely talented Isabelle Huppert is a better film, and if you love Wasikowska, her recent performances in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars are far more interesting. As for Sophie Barthes, this is her second feature film, and she’s still learning her craft. I do look forward to her future work, as I think her technique is good — but I do hope she won’t try to be so ambitious next time in her choice of material.