No one can accuse Mike Newell of being stuck in a rut. After toiling for years in the better reaches of British television, he directed breakthrough features in the 1980s such as Dance With a Stranger and The Good Father. In 1994, he hit one out of the park–if we can apply such a gauche Americanism to this donnish Cambridge graduate–with the indie hit Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Newell followed that with the decidedly uncommercial An Awfully Big Adventure, set in his beloved theatre world, and then went in another direction (across the Atlantic, actually) in 1997 with Donnie Brasco. More recently, he helmed two big-star disappointments, Pushing Tin and Mona Lisa Smile, before coming back to direct the maxi-budget Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which many critics found to be the darkest and maybe deepest entry in the series.
The success of that effort, if not the overall profile of his career, allowed this most adaptive of directors to move from J.K. Rowling to Gabriel García Márquez with a stunningly faithful version of Love in the Time of Cholera, a novel few of its many fans would have expected to become a superior motion picture. The beautifully crafted movie, which opens this Friday (November 16), is in English, although the cast roster is more good than famous.
"Would I have had the confidence to make this movie if I hadn't done a Harry Potter?," Newell asked on the phone from London, England. "Absolutely. But the money is a whole other matter. For better or worse, the people who come up with budgets for this sort of thing are really only interested in box-office performance."
It definitely took some dough to mount such a deluxe, on-location project as this tale of bowler-hatted Colombian Everyman Florentino, played by Javier Bardem, whose existence is marked by a 50-year fixation on the wealthy Fermina (Gio vanna Mezzogiorno, from the Italian version of The Last Kiss), who is always just out of reach.
Newell explained that the film's artistic success was driven by a highly poetic–if sometimes bawdily humorous–script from Ronald Harwood, who has written adaptations as varied as Roman Polanski's The Pianist and The Butterfly and the Diving Bell, a new French-language effort directed by Julian Schnabel.
"Ronnie's a wonderful writer," the director enthused. "He was an actor for years himself, and he wrote The Dresser–he was the dresser, in fact. And no one knows better how to write wonderful dialogue for actors."
Another key was finding Brazilian cinematographer Affonso Beato (who started with cinema novo director Glauber Rocha and more recently shot The Queen and Ghost World) to help depict a Colombia plagued by war and disease at the turn of the last century.
"One of the things we set out to do was to make everything look hot," Newell said. "Affonso is able to deliver the weird individuality of a place."
Once Newell had determined to shoot the film in English, using a large cast of actors from Latin backgrounds, the key was the hiring of Bardem, who holds the sweeping tale together and ages half a century in a most convincing manner. Much of the amusement in Cholera comes from the fact that his Florentino only gets more sexually active as he gets older.
This notion is supported by Brazilian great Fernanda Montenegro (of Central Station fame), who plays Florentino's mother and in interviews recently described Bardem's presence on the set as that of "a Picasso bull".
("He does seem to have a certain effect on women," Scotland's Kelly Macdonald recently told the Straight while talking about the Spanish actor's participation–as a ruthless killer–in the currently playing No Country for Old Men.)
"That is so true," Newell concurred. "I thought he was the most charismatic fellow I had ever come across. But I also loved Fernanda, and I have to point out that Javier fought for her. You know, she is supposed to play his mother when he's quite young. I said, 'Look, she's 76, so how will that work?' But she heard about this and sent me these wonderful pictures where she made herself look about 50. She's such a chameleon."
Another surprise was pretty boy Benjamin Bratt in the challenging role of the upper-crust, emotionally remote doctor who keeps trumping Florentino for Fermina's affections–or at least loyalty.
"Well, his acting is just startling, isn't it? I couldn't tell Ben what to do," Newell said. "His grasp of the role was total, and all I had to do was sit back and watch him. Ben comes from very modest circumstances, in San Francisco, with a Peruvian mother, but here he had the mental and physical grace of a true aristocrat."
Also aboard, in smaller parts, are John Legui zamo and Catalina Sandino Moreno, both originally from Colombia; Mexican-born Laura Harring; and New York veteran Hector Elizondo. The movie is hopscotched throughout with many actors playing themselves at different ages, although there are some substitutes. (Bardem himself found a well-matched young Spaniard to play his character as a teenager.) Newell knew that not everything and everybody in a project this ambitious would be utterly convincing.
"One thing you could say of the movie is that not all of the edges are burnished, exactly," he said. "But it's also true that you can look at it and see that the thing was made, and made by hand–like seeing the chisel marks on a statue. I think that gives a personality it wouldn't have had if it was, let's say, shiny all over."
Which ultimately takes us back to the source, courtesy of the Nobel Prize–winning Márquez.
"Apart from anything else, the novel is so incredibly rich that, in some senses, you'd have to say to yourself, 'I'd be much happier if I could make just half of this.'" Newell admitted. "But you can't, of course, because of what it was about. And everything is so thought through in the book."
Newell insisted that he didn't shoot much that wasn't used in the final cut, except for a couple of Florentino scenes. ("And I'm afraid Javier will never understand or forgive me for that.") But there were many sequences, especially involving the titular epidemic, that were impractical to mount.
"No matter how good the material, you simply have to make the film at a length that the audience will stand for–or maybe I should say sit for," the director said. "I had, I felt, very good proof that this was a two-and-one-quarter-hour movie at most. At most."
If some of the pestilence is skipped, there's plenty of on-screen evidence of Florentino's side hobby while waiting for his elegant lady love: shtupping everything in skirts.
"Okay, he did have 622 conquests," Newell added with a laugh. "But you could imagine that at least some of those would get quite wearisome, to a good degree. But he has, absolutely, had an intense existence, and that is what he intends to share with Fermina. I thought that this was the essence of the book."
The gritty humanity of the tale–from the chambered intimacy of the main characters' private lives to the teeming streets of Cartagena, Colombia–also sticks in the mind, making this a signal achievement for the 65-year-old filmmaker, who had never before attempted such a large-scale period piece.
"I was fed to the back teeth by CGI crowds, and all that goes with a big, special-effects movie. One thing I took from the book was that this place really was a microcosm of the world. So you had to make it as overwhelming as the world would be to these people. It's a kind of termites' nest in which everybody has a selfish purpose. Everybody is pushing and shoving to get their own ways. This has to seem real, and that's what we set out to do."
If the film, in the end, doesn't feel as real as a documentary, that's all to the good. Emotionally, it's as true as an opera.