Madame Bovary is actress Mia Wasikowska’s fifth period drama set in the 19th century, and perhaps her consistently measured performance is one reason that this latest take on Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel feels like a notable disappointment.
After tightening the corset for four other projects, the high-class, higher-brow genre is business as usual for Wasikowska, and she slips into the role of Emma Bovary, fiction’s most famous adulteress, with evident ease but an equally obvious lack of inspiration. There’s not a drop of danger or passion in the actress’ otherwise very respectable portrayal – with her Mona Lisa smile and defined cheekbones, Wasikowska certainly looks the part, but she only intermittently allows us to view the inner turmoil concealed by her protagonist’s placid melancholy glances. The result is merely watchable, as opposed to Wasikowska’s involving past portrayals of period characters, most exceptionally in the spooky Jane Eyre.
Flaubert’s tragic tale of the tedium present in provincial life has long been considered one of literature’s most perfectly written works – the author was a renowned perfectionist, and his novel delivered that rarest of characters: a truly unlikeable but damnably relatable heroine, at once thoughtful and frivolous, victimized and vulturine, puissant and impuissant. Out of the archetypal figure of the unfaithful wife, envisioned as a romantic unhappily married to an unambitious country doctor who looks outside her martial bed for some excitement, Flaubert crafted a complex and deeply human character ruined both by her own greed and the unrealistic perception of life hoisted on her from a young age.
But in one of a few baffling choices, writer-director Sophie Barthes (along with writers Rose Barreneche and Felipe Marino) makes the decision to excise much of Emma’s backstory. Gone is the character’s early obsession with romantic novels that forms most of her warped worldview, and the film only fleetingly peers beneath her serene expressions to find any trace of real emotion, even as she drives herself and her husband (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) into financial ruin with extravagant purchases offered up by an unctuous merchant (Rhys Ifans, having the most fun out of anyone in the cast with a slimy wretch of a character).
What’s left is a handsomely staged shell, both of a character and more broadly of an adaptation. It’s populated with gorgeous costuming and tastefully filmed by cinematographer Andrij Parekh but bereft of any real depth. In fact, the lavish visuals of the film, which impress the elegance of the protagonist’s many over-expensive luxuries, may actually work against it, detracting from scenes where the audience’s eyes would have been more appropriately guided to the sparks of drama in performers’ facial expressions. A tighter focus on the torment present in Emma’s mind, not on the external appearances of her life, would have helped to communicate the very human tragedy of her descent into personal and financial ruin (which Barthes chooses to give away the final steps of in an unnecessary in medias res opening).
The supporting cast largely holds together, though none of them have nearly as much work to do as Wasikowska. Paul Giamatti savors every line as a pharmacist who threatens to upend Monsieur Bovary’s business in the name of progress, attempting to spice up traditional medicine with flawed new inventions and procedures. Elsewhere, Perks of Being a Wallflower breakout Ezra Miller makes moon-eyes at a receptive Emma, and Logan Marshall-Green embodies the Marquis, the other of Emma’s two affairs, with raw sex appeal and a sneering upper lip. Both have a vitality that Emma’s husband is sorely lacking, and it’s clear why she’s drawn to them. All of the men perform their parts quite ably – and, with the exception of Ifans, none ever threaten to steal a single ray of Wasikowska’s spotlight.
Still, there’s an aimlessness to Barthes’ take that suggests she had no idea where to properly shine that same light when adapting a novel as notoriously tricky as Flaubert’s. She’s not alone – none of the previous cinematic versions have properly communicated the emotional intricacy of the prose, either failing with bland scripts or distracting visuals. But with Wasikowska so seemingly primed to deliver a deeply emotive take on the lead character, it’s most frustrating that the whole production feels stifled by Barthes’ cold, dreary approach. Interestingly, though she is the first female director to tackle a big screen version of Flaubert’s story, Barthes perhaps has even less sympathy for her protagonist than any of the other helmers. In telling Emma’s tale of married ennui, Barthes highlights the woman’s cruelty toward her hapless husband but never effectively communicates what in Emma’s head drives her to such extreme action.
Wasikowska responds to the film’s lack of focus in kind, with a performance that vacillates between childlike vanity (in places, she seems reminiscent of one of today’s tabloid fixtures, like a slightly less brassy Kardashian) and abject misery. Whether she’s a tragic heroine so much as a self-centered villain is up to the discretion of the viewer – by cutting out the daughter left abandoned at the end of Flaubert’s novel, Barthes and her writers minimize the damage Emma has on those around her, but the movie also never provides much justification for her adultery and materialism. Without knowing much of anything about the forces that shaped Emma, she’s simply an unsavory victim of her own lustful desires.
And so, Barthes’ adaptation is the latest in a long line of movies that fail to do right by Flaubert’s novel. Her take is one of those unnecessarily sedate and stuffy historical dramas that drags on with long silences and drawn-out scenes, offering little more than a skin-deep and stately version of a book that’s anything but. There’s no fire here, no provocation or titillation, and for a story about forbidden pleasures, that’s a real misstep. The entire film feels crushed, as if a corset has been drawn around the picture and tightened so ruthlessly so that everyone on screen struggles to breathe, let alone act. In Flaubert’s original work, Emma casts off the oppressive expectations of her time period in favor of more carnal, craven pleasures. A good film adaption should be willing to follow suit, not peer curiously at her as if regarding a wild animal from behind safe layers of protective glass.