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London Film Festival Review: Madame Bovary

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★★★☆☆

Gustav Flaubert’s wonderfully vivid, brutal, passionate novel Madame Bovary has been given an interesting cinematic interpretation by Cold Souls director Sophie Barthes. It’s not quite as brutal or as passionate as Flaubert’s original story but it is beautifully shot and retains some of the novel’s haunting despair. It just never goes far enough.

Flaubert was taken to court, charged with obscenity, for writing the book in 1957, though was acquitted. Since then it has become a classic of French literature and has been adapted a number of times by filmmakers as diverse as Jean Renoir, Vincente Minnelli, Claude Chabrol and Tim Fywell. This version is more restrained and less hysterical than some, with Mia Wasikowska in the title role.

Wasikowska doesn’t murder this role in the same dreadful way she did in 2011’s Jane Eyre (which, thank goodness, puts paid to my suspicion she has a hit list of major literary heroines she’d like to ruin onscreen and was slowly working her way through them). She does, however, turn in a performance that is too polite and quiet. The story of Madame Bovary concerns a woman, Emma, who marries a doctor and becomes discontent with life. He isn’t as romantic as she’d wish and she can’t help thinking ‘Is this all there is?’ To keep herself occupied she dabbles in some Nineteenth Century retail therapy. She buys rugs and table cloths and curtains and dresses and gloves and posh food. All manner of things envelope her in a luxury she cannot afford, convincing herself that this is a good tranquiliser for her boredom. Before long she starts having affairs, though these continue to make her feel isolated rather than part of the rich and exciting life she always imagined for herself.

There is a big problem with the use of accents in the film. It really is bizarre. Even though we’re in the midst of 1850s France, we have Australian actor Mia Wasikowska doing an American accent whilst her husband, played by The Inbetweeners actor Henry Lloyd-Hughes, is English. Paul Giamatti is muttering around in the background as her husband’s medical friend and retains his natural American slant. There is also Rhys Ifans as the peddler of luxurious clothes (who tempts Emma into a mountain of debt) who contributes a weird Welsh-French mixtape of an accent that left me thoroughly puzzled. In terms of Emma Bovary’s lovers, there is South Carolina-born actor Logan Marshall-Green playing his role with beautifully deep posh English vowels and on the other end of the spectrum Ezra Miller keeping his normal American accent. To really round everything off, Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael appears with an accent that sounds like she’s just been plucked from somewhere north of Manchester, when in real life she is from Southampton. And all these people are supposed to be French! Whether Barthes felt that nobody would notice or that it would add a certain edge to the whole thing, I do not know.

As previously mentioned, the film looks achingly beautiful. The cinematography, by Barthes husband Andrij Parekh, is the most memorable thing about the movie. Indeed, he almost injects something Gothic into it with the grim, dark shots of forests and low-lit rooms in old stone houses. Though I imagine it has something to do with shooting dates and production challenges, the film is entirely set within autumn and this ends up having an extraordinary effect on the overall feel. It’s as if Emma Bovary’s life is dying around her before she has ever had a chance to have her summer. Trapped in a world of eternally falling leaves, rain and half-light, her depression becomes exquisitely tangible.

Though Wasikowska offers some decent acting at times, she lets the ball drop in the final act. Whether this stems from Barthes direction or our leading actor’s allergy to passionate speeches, Emma’s despair and trauma never quite touches our hearts and her words fall flat. If you want to see a truly splendid interpretation of the character, watch Tim Fywell’s 2001 version with Francis O’Connor in the lead. She burns down the screen with her intensity. Wasikowska barely manages a spark. This is a curious work to add to the Bovary cannon. As well as the obvious Wasikowska-link, there is something very reminiscent of Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre about this piece, or even Jane Campion’s film Bright Star. They are all gorgeous to look at and avoid falling into obvious melodrama but become victims of their own restraint. Beautifully done, but frustratingly done.

Madame Bovay (2014) is showing as part of the BFI London Film Festival this October. It will be released in UK cinemas in 2015.

 




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