Every time another one of these somber adaptations of 19th-century novels comes around, I know precisely what I'm in for. And yet I continue to hope. I continue to pray that a compelling performance, or a subtle re-interpretation, or even a modest set piece might dislodge me from the notion that these puddly domestic dramas were all produced with the same stock of costumes and interiors; that these were and are exquisite, influential works of fiction, but generally speaking make lousy movies.
Madame Bovary is no exception. It's the latest adaptation of the French author Gustave Flaubert's incendiary debut of the same name. It opens Friday at the Cedar Lee. Unlike Jane Austen's novels (or in Downton Abbey, for instance), which depict ensembles full of discrete personalities and diverse, bubbly desires, Madame Bovary is as sullen and impenetrably dull as they come. For a film about a profligate adulteress, this is a huge letdown. (The fact that the film's total action transpires on cloudy days doesn't help either, as far as mood is concerned.)
The story is a familiar one, and indeed laid the groundwork for what we understand to be "realist narrative" back in 1857.
The young Emma (Mia Wasikowska, whose American accent jostles among the British and French varietals) marries the provincial doctor Charles Bovary and moves to a listless town in Normandy. Almost immediately, she is bored by the banalities of her new life and begins lavishly spending on credit, redecorating her home and outfitting herself in imported fabrics and hot new styles.
Also, plenty of adultery spices things up. Though why all these feathery legal students and moribund marquises take any interest in Madame Bovary remains a mystery. She's supposed to be a romantic, a young mischievous woman swept away by music and literature. But Wasikowska's version is muted, prim and painfully inaccessible. You're likely to be more interested in the maid, Henriette (Laura Carmichael, Edith on Downton), who at the very least rouses herself to communicate some emotion with her eyes.
The second and third act tragedies are all basically Shakespearian: dire straits get direr; the sinister merchant-cum-moneylender Lheureux (Rhys Ifans) demands prompt payment of the mounting debt; Charles grows more distant, having taken to gossiping with the pompous town pharmacist (an absent Paul Giamatti); the affairs fizzle out; Emma pouts for the duration.
I often say that even a single moment of levity can enliven an otherwise mirthless, heavyset script. Here, there's simply no joy to experience. There are, of course, some lovely period costumes and an omnipresent minor-key piano score: It's like walking into a painting, raved one enthusiastic blurb. And if that's your thing, great.
But the real friction and social torque of the story occurs in the transgressions of Emma Bovary's mind and body. And neither, in this instance, are successfully transposed from the page to the screen.