Brooding and moody from the outset, director Sophie Barthes’ “Madame Bovary” makes many changes to Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 debut novel, streamlining Emma Bovary’s tale of want and woe. Emma is here played by Mia Wasikowska, who marries a country doctor and ruins her life through a series of mistakes, affairs and errors in the heedless, headlong and constant pursuit of more.
Adapted by Barthes and Felipe Marino, this screenplay jettisons whole sections of Flaubert’s novel — children, affairs, characters — and shortens Emma’s story from years to what seems like a matter of months, attempting to turn the tale into a straight shot of Emma’s sufferings, beginning at the ending of the novel and then showing us how things got to that grave state. But one of the biggest problems with this version of “Madame Bovary” is that it’s simply a slog — not elevated by the gothic spookiness of a “Jane Eyre” or the swooning romanticism of a “Wuthering Heights,” but instead a series of unfortunate decisions motivated by a numb, bored woman desperate to feel something, anything, outside of the proscribed roles and rituals of her time.
If Barthes and Wasikowska had, to borrow a phrase from pro wrestling, made this version of the story a “heel turn” — one about Emma not only doing wrong but doing so willfully, gleefully, as a statement of self-assertion in a time when women were not allowed to either assert themselves or be themselves — the film would have been worthy of both our time and Wasikowska’s talents. But Emma here simply frets and waits and does more awful things, and nothing is ever quite good enough. (Here, Emma feels less like a unique character and more like a period-piece gender-swapped version of Don Draper: She only likes the beginning of things, when everything is new.)
Henry Lloyd-Hughes plays Charles Bovary, the doctor Emma marries, and he’s simply bland; his modest life is less than Emma wants. In the book, Emma’s avarice and desire are propelled in no small part by her affection for romantic novels; here, that satirical note gets snubbed in favor of atmospheric angst and shots of Wasikowska looking sad or, for variety, even more sad. In Cary Fukunaga‘s “Jane Eyre,” Wasikowska had desire and mystery to motivate her; here, as Emma, she’s set against problems she has, at best, created for herself. It’s a shame; Wasikowska is a present and brilliant actress, but she can be hamstrung by indifferent or flawed material just as badly as any peer. Paul Giamatti adds some appropriate flourish and charm as the unctuous Homais, but both Ezra Miller and Logan Marshall-Green are both too bland and entirely too modern to make much of an impression as Emma’s lovers, whether striving lawyer (Miller) or bored aristocrat (Marshall-Green).
Andrij Parekh’s cinematography is a high point — hand-held shots creating a feel of lived-in presence in this world, and while the light in almost every frame may be diffuse and clouded, it is present; no eye-straining gloom for glamour’s sake happens here. Rhys Ifans — who is aging into a fine and odd actor — is also a standout as Monsieur Lheureux, a clothes-and-knick-knacks salesman who can give Emma the elegant and shiny things she needs to improve her life and is more than willing to extend her credit. He’s seductive and smooth, and when the bill does come due, he loses much of his air of affability.
The sets and settings are all lovely; costume designers Christian Gasc and Valerie Ranchoux make the clothes look real but lustrous, possible and still beautiful, demonstrably the products of a 19th-century world while still conveying that they are very, very expensive. Barthes previously directed “Cold Souls,” which worked as a zippy, meta-modern riff on the nature of the self set in Manhattan but inspired by the 19th-century work of Russian short-story writer Nikolai Gogol, turning classic themes into modern problems and capturing the dry, amusing result.
Watching “Madame Bovary,” you find yourself wishing that Barthes had done something, anything with Flaubert’s novel other than slap it up on the screen as yet another tale of woe from long ago; there’s something hard and flinty at the center of Flaubert’s novel about want and wanton excess that could say plenty to the modern audience, but it’s lost here in favor of Wasikowska’s less-than-enthralling and slow-paced journey from dissatisfaction to disaster.