Starring Mia Wasikowska. Rated 14A.
Just as Marvel has its superheroes, the literary world has no shortage of icons. And you can bet your ovaries that the film world will just keep cranking out Madame Bovarys. So far, there have been more than 15 features and TV movies, including a Bollywood version and last year’s contemporary spoof Gemma Bovery.
Gustave Flaubert’s 1858 magazine serial was an instant bestseller when published in book form, after a gold-mine obscenity trial. People were struck by Flaubert’s realism in the depiction of village life and of female sexuality.
Perhaps the most enduring catnip to filmmakers is the innate unlikability of its heroine. A vain, empty-headed woman—quick to take offence, easy to manipulate, and casually hurtful to her neglected daughter and others around her—Emma Bovary was arresting precisely because the author separated basic human needs from social value.
Here played by Mia Wasikowska, who made a quietly potent impression as the title character in 2011’s Jane Eyre, young Emma goes directly from convent life to marriage to country doctor Charles Bovary (played by Henry Lloyd-Hughes, also in the most recent version of the similarly themed Anna Karenina). The man’s no monster, but he lacks humour and imagination, and is no great shakes in the bedroom.
This sets her heart, and other organs, a-fluttering after other, more passionate gentlemen, especially when she falls under the spell of a fashion monger who views her as a cash cow, and a local pharmacist who fans her Lady Macbeth–like ambitions for Charles. Paul Giamatti and Rhys Ifans, respectively, are fastidiously French in these key roles, while the mostly British cast sticks to BBC locutions, leaving a fairly blank-faced Wasikowska in an intermittently Yank-voiced netherworld.
Put this tonal unevenness down to Franco-American writer-director Sophie Barthes, here helming her second feature after casting Giamatti in her incomprehensible Cold Souls.
The stately cinematography, courtesy of Barthe’s partner, Indo-Ukrainian Andrij Parekh, suggests realms of feeling the script never reaches. This two-hour effort is packed with incident, yet somehow leaves out the most important parts.