Gustave Flaubert’s 1865 brooding and bittersweet tragedy about a 19th century self destructive woman and her tragic fall from grace has been filmed many times. There was even a recent contemporary take on the character with the recent French film Gemma Bovary. And Woody Allen used Flaubert’s famous character as the template for his Blue Jasmine, which featured an Oscar winning performance from Cate Blanchett. This latest version from Sophie Barthes (Cold Souls) is a visually sumptuous film but emotionally cold and dry.
Mia Wasikowska steps into the role of the flighty Emma Bovary, raised in a convent and then married off to the rather dull country physician Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). But she quickly finds that life as the wife of a country doctor is rather tedious, and she is often left home alone while Charles is out visiting patients. She seeks solace in the arms of handsome young lawyer Leon (Ezra Miller, from The Perks of Being a Wallflower), until her passion drives him away. She also embarks on a torrid affair with the handsome and wealthy Marquis D’Andervilliers (Logan Marshall-Green). There is also some retail therapy with the cunning merchant Monsieur Lheureux (Rhys Ifans), who provides her with all the creature comforts she desires as she runs up a mountain of debts.
Barthes brings a strong feminist quality to the familiar material, and handles the story in rather unsympathetic fashion, which is perfectly suited to the tone of Flaubert’s novel. She has also contracted the dense novel to make it a much pacier tale here, jettisoning many characters and subplots. Barthes also uses the films to explore issues of class and the place of women in the 19th century. But her direction is also rather prosaic, resulting in a film that is ultimately rather dull and lacks the requisite passion.
Having previously played a similarly doomed and miserable literary heroine in Jane Eyre, Wasikowska is a great fit for Flaubert’s flawed and emotionally fragile Madame Bovary. She brings strength and a suitably enigmatic quality to her performance. Paul Giamatti brings his usual sleazy charm to his role as Homais, the obsequious chemist, while both Miller and Logan-Green are fairly bland as Emma’s younger suitors. Ifans is a standout as the sleazy merchant.
The film looks exquisite though with superb costumes, and some gorgeous cinematography from Andrij Parekh, who uses handheld camera and natural lighting to good effect. He also uses closeup to capture Emma’s feelings of being closed in and confined by the strictures of both the times and her small town setting.
Madame Bovary is available on DVD, Blu-ray and on-demand from 26 November 2015.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television