Gustave Flaubert's debut novel Madame Bovary is one of those literary chestnuts that gets revived for a new audience every couple of decades or so. The first prominent film adaptation was Albert Ray's Unholy Love (the same story with a sensationalist title), while Vincente Minnelli's larger production (starring Jennifer Jones and James Mason) arrived in 1949. David Lean offered a modern reworking of the story with his 1970 epic Ryan's Daughter, and Claude Chabrol turned in the most critically acclaimed adaptation to date in 1991. According to my calender, it should be just about... oh! Well, here's the 2015 version of Madame Bovary, right on time.
The thing that sets the latest Madame Bovary apart from its predecessors is that this is the first adaptation helmed by a woman - an important difference, given that the story is fundamentally an attempt to understand a woman's actions. Director Sophie Barthes (who previously gave us the excellent-but-overlooked existential drama Cold Souls) doesn't bring a lot of new ideas to the table, but this is nonetheless a handsomely-staged, well-acted production of a literary classic.
In an effort to keep the film's running time manageable without losing the substance of the tale, Barthes basically lops off the opening and closing sections of the book, opting to limit her focus to the marriage of Charles (Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Anna Karenina) and Emma Bovary (Mia Wasikowska, Jane Eyre). Charles is a humble country doctor with a reserved personality, while Emma is a romantic who dreamt that married life would be something vastly more exciting. Eventually, Emma begins to seek escape by engaging in a series of extramarital affairs and by spending her husband's money on expensive clothes and trinkets.
Emma is not a particularly good person - she is ultimately defined by selfishness, snobbery and infidelity - but it's to Barthe's credit (and to Flaubert's) that we still manage to feel for her in spite of everything. Madame Bovary doesn't gawk at bad behavior and cluck its tongue, but rather seeks to help us understand what made Emma the sort of person she becomes. A telling moment arrives early, when Emma spends an afternoon making an elaborate meal for her husband - a process she greatly enjoys. Charles thanks her, but quickly suggests that she ought not spend so much time on food preparation. "The maid will take care of it," he says. His suggestion isn't rooted in dismissiveness or malice - he's genuinely attempting to save her the effort - but it's the first of many little reminders that life for a country doctor's wife in 19th century France is terminally dull. Charles is a good man, but clearly a poor match for his wife - his no-nonsense practicality meshes poorly with Emma's lust for life. Emma is a passionate woman, and that passion quickly withers within the confines of marriage.
The chief villain of Madame Bovary is mere circumstance, but a couple of others are happy to assist. First, we have the duplicitous Monsiuer Homas (Paul Giamatti, Sideways), a local pharmacist who secretly plots to undercut Charles' career. Second, we have the vile Monsieur Lheureux (Rhys Ifans, Pirate Radio), a dry-goods dealer who recognizes Emma's weakness for luxury and takes advantage of it. Lheureux constantly reminds Emma that he is willing to extend her credit ("Charles is good for it!"), all the while waiting for just the right moment to call in the debt. Clearly, the world of Madame Bovary is vastly different from the one most of us currently live in, but Giamatti's professional jealousy and Ifans' professional greed feel uncomfortably familiar (Ifans is more or less the personification of those credit card offers you're always getting in the mail).
Wasikowska is one of the most gifted actresses of her generation, and you never catch her overplaying any stage of Emma's transformation. Contrast her discontented haughtiness here with her gleeful madness in Only Lovers Left Alive, her oddball inquisitiveness in Map to the Stars and her long-suffering heartbreak in Jane Eyre and you begin to see the depth of her range. In every case, she's alarmingly natural and convincing. She's remarkable during Madame Bovary's closing scenes, underplaying wildly melodramatic moments to heartbreaking effect. The film's handheld cinematography quietly underlines the film's turbulent emotions, and prevents the movie from feeling too much like a Masterpiece Theatre production.
If the film has one significant weakness, it's that Emma's assorted lovers are a little bland. That's completely intentional in the case of Charles (played with affecting cluelessness by Lloyd-Hughes), but the young Leon Dupuis (Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and the wealthy Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green, Prometheus) come across as dullards of different stripes. They are supposed to represent the sort of exciting alternatives to Charles the world has to offer (Leon shares Emma's romanticism, while the Marquis shares her affection for expensive things), but neither actor manages to make much of an impression.
Still, Wasikowska sells everything she needs to sell even when her co-stars don't, and that's enough to make the film work. This isn't a definitive adaptation of Flaubert's novel, but it's an absorbing take on the story that benefits from Barthes' light touch. In a bold move, the film opens with Emma's death, then jumps back in time and works its way back to that point. The result of this spoiler-y decision is that we spend less time wondering what will happen to Emma and more time focusing on why things happen to Emma. In other words, our focus is redirected in a way that allows us to pay attention to what the story is really about. Not every departure from the original text works, but the boldness is commendable.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Year: 2015