Gustave Flaubert’s nineteenth-century novel Madame Bovary is a canonical classic of world literature. Being already the subject of half-a-dozen film/television adaptations, it prompts the question: do we need another? While this reviewer is not in the position of having seen those adaptations to pass comparative judgement, let us nevertheless approach with cautious optimism: a chance for a definitive filming that gets at the heart of the novel, unfettered by the sorts of restrictions you could imagine imposed on say, the 1949 Vincente Minnelli version; a Bovary for the ages, like Polanski’s Tess was to Thomas Hardy’s novel.
Now let us replace optimism with realism, because the end product is none of these things –a passionless exercise in which poor characterizations barely exceed their surface value; on one hand disloyal enough to the text to change plot points and amalgamate characters, but on the other, too reverent and uninspired for the changes to have any real significance.
Fairness being due, Madame Bovary represents a fairly difficult book to film in as much as it hinges primarily on internal exposition. While there is a literal chain of external events occurring too, when you take away the interior subtext, those events become merely perfunctory. And that is the problem here. The attempts to convey the internalised life of the titular character are awkward and cumbersome; so you are left mostly with the external events, which, without the context of greater meaning, is just a lot of stuff that happens, none of it which seems all that interesting or remarkable.
As the blurb on a book, it wouldn’t look particularly remarkable either: Emma Bovary marries country doctor Charles; they move to the provincial small town of Yonville where Emma quickly grows bored with matrimony and embarks on a series of love affairs which precede her inevitable downfall. But the poetry of the language and the complexity of characters means that it exceeds its basic plot, just as the movie fails to do so.
The Emma Bovary of the book, for instance, is an ungrateful, vain and deluded agitator who is rarely likeable. What makes her sympathetic is the palpable sense of existential disappointment which characterises her actions, a realistic emotional sense of being ripped off by the world, even as wholly a consequence of one’s own unfeasible expectations of life.
One gets the sense that the filmmakers struggled with a way to make her more likeable and arrived at a compromise somewhere between petty and bland. Mostly though, the character appears lacking motivation in this setting. As a consequence, Charles (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) becomes slightly more boorish as a substitute for revised meaning –but even that is not taken far enough, because he still seems too inherently decent.
Mia Wasikowska -who is a good actress- does her best as Madame Bovary, but her accent is inexplicable, because she is an Australian-born playing a French character affecting an American dialect, which sounds like it was exported from Wicked: The Musical. But it’s in relation to her lovers that the film borders on epic fail, because Leon (Ezra Miller) and The Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green) look like Chachi Arcola/white-Michael Jackson and Douglas Reynholm (from TV’s The IT Crowd) respectively, and that’s just terrible casting -unless you’re doing a Happy Days reboot, an MJ biopic, or an IT Crowd Christmas special. It also makes Emma’s incentive for those affairs all the more obscure, because the chemistry that should exist feels so glaringly absent –you wonder why she would bother.
Paul Giamatti -despite another inexplicable American accent- would be good as Monsieur Homais the chemist if the character had not been so completely decimated by the script. Actually, he isn’t a chemist here -that was the novel. He’s just a guy who hangs around with no discernible purpose. Most the supporting characters suffer the same fate, stripped of their idiosyncrasies or gone altogether, reduced when they appear to one-dimensional types.
Visually, although the film is sometimes beautiful to look at, it suffers from a closeted sense of space, an insistence on constant close-ups that restrict the depth of the frame. Consequently, key scenery, such as the town of Yonville and the Bovary’s apartment, feels negated as a tangible environment, a legitimate gripe here when it is a significant impetus in the story for Emma’s motivation: she hates the small town and the people who become inseparably part of her life there; it becomes in part her self-justification for wanting to leave.
Madame Bovary is a well-meaning adaptation, pleasant and relatively engaging. It could have been a contender, but it is a mostly uninspired period piece, too unsure of its own purpose -marred rather than heightened by its arbitrary truncations of Flaubert’s novel- to truly succeed in transferring this notoriously difficult text to the screen.
THE REEL SCORE: 4/10