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Germany/Belgium/USA 2014
Directed by
Sophie Barthes
118 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Madame Bovary

Synopsis: In mid-19th century France, a young convent-educated girl (Mia Wasikowska) is married to a country doctor, Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) by her loving farmer father. But life in the small, provincial town of Yonville near Rouen soon palls for Emma and her attempts to change her lot have disastrous consequences.

Following hard on the heels of Far From The Madding Crowd and returning to the source of Gemma BoveryMadame Bovary brings one of Western literature’s most famous heroines to the screen.  Although as both a costume drama and an adaptation I preferred it to Thomas Vinterberg’s effort I suspect for most audiences it will be a matter of personal taste.

For a start you need to know that although Sophie Barthes is French, her film, as the cast indicates, is an English language production.  With the exception of Rhys Ifans’ Monsieur Lheureux the actors do not essay French accents so that we get ‘mon-sewer’ rather than “meh-syer” and the linguistic departures are enough to deprive the film of a specifically French character. If Ifans’s pantomime villain has a definite excessive appeal some may be struggling to understand why it was deemed appropriate to cast Paul Giamatti as Monsieur Homais (other than that he starred in Barthes’ previous film, the engaging sci-fi black comedy, Cold Souls)

Be that as it may, the film manifests a distinctly French quality in its marvellous visual style. I know it’s a cliché but it is only too true to describe Madame Bovary as a painting or rather a museum of paintings come to life. The art direction, wardrobe and production design recreate the time and place exquisitely albeit that it means that Bovary has what seems to be a very well-appointed home for a country doctor, even before Emma gets to re-decorating it.

Carey Mulligan or Mia Wasikowska will also be a matter of taste. Both are winsome poppets rather than traditional screen goddesses. If anything it is the men here who are the eye candy: Logan Marshall-Green’s rock-star-looking country squire and Ezra Miller’s romantically androgynous law clerk bring the necessary quotient of sensual promise to Wasikowska’s girl-next-door plainness. They too are important as agents for the destruction of Emma’s romantic illusions. Wasikowska is much more effective in this respect as Emma comes to realizes the extent of her folly and, even if undone by her own irresponsibility, we feel sympathy for her.

Ultimately it is down to the director whether Emma comes to life on screen, whatever form she may take. Barthes and co-writer Felipe Marino have re-shaped Flaubert’s story to focus on their heroine, pushing Charles to the margins and eliminating altogether Emma’s young daughter, Berthe.  Despite this they have not given us a dramatically compelling character but rather the story of her fashionably-attired downfall.

In many ways the last (which is also the first) we see of Emma as in a beautiful gown she languidly expires alone on a bed of fallen autumn leaves sums up the merits and shortcoming of the film. It’s elegantly composed and framed but as an image of a tragic death it is too picturesquely detached to hold much sway over us.




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