That Mia Wasikowska plays the role of Emma Bovary is not surprising. She has the face and stature to capture the character’s deep interiority. In other words, she has a face and features suited to the stillness of a provincial, 19th century French woman. Waskiowska is the main course of this latest remake of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and makes this uneven movie worth it in the end.
Madam Baovary is the latest in a long, cinematic line of adaptations of Gustave Flaubert’s novel of the same name. If this is your first time encountering the story, here it is, in sum: Madame Bovary is Emma Bovary, a smartly educated young woman from northern France who dreams of luxury beyond her station. She ties to do the good things, and seek a happy life for herself. Emma marries a doctor (Henry Loyd-Hughes); they have a child. But Emma fails to find the passion of life that she’s been searching for since her youth.
To that end, Emma begins an affair with a man more suited to her intellectual and luxurious appetites, Leon Dupuis (Ezra Miller). The affair between Emma and Leon will bring the fire that Emma seeks, but also leads to tragedy for many who become entangled in the events of Emma’s life.
Directed by Sophie Barthes, this rendition of Madame Bovary is comprised very fine pieces, each worthy of recommendation. It’s stunningly photographed by the calm, sophisticated Andrij Parekh, and ornately designed and costumed. If there’s anything we can count on for a Madame Bovarry adaptation it is the pleasures of period piece costume design.
Likewise, the performances are all accomplished, and sometimes more so. Paul Giamitti, as the scheming Monsieur Homais is a delight. Which is not much a surprise but always notable.
But despite the pieces that make up this film, the whole doesn’t seem to come together. Perhaps the stoic power of Wasikowska becomes the very problem that the film cannot overcome. When the world is falling apart for Emma, when she’s facing the consequences of a society she lives in and the choices she has made, the emotional resonance and action of the film compresses tightly and leaves us feeling too little.
Barthes’ direction and story telling just does not match the grand design and evocative surroundings of her cast and crew. Nor does she reach the heights of Flaubert’s passionate realism. That’s a tall order, of course, and few adaptations of any work are capable of that achievement. Let alone adaptations of Flaubert.
Madame Bovary is finishing its run at St. Anthony Main in Minneapolis this weekend.