Director: Sophie Barthes
Actors: Mia Wasikowska, Laura Carmichael, Ezra Miller, Paul Giamatti, Rhys Ifans
Writers: Felipe Marino and Sophie Barthes (screenplay), Gustave Flaubert (novel)
Country: United Kingdom/Belgium
Runtime: 118 min
Film adaptations of classic literature are undoubtedly popular at the moment, and bring with them their own specific audiences and challenges. Those who are attracted to director Sophie Barthes’ film Madame Bovary (2014) have probably read or studied the famous novel by Gustave Flaubert, and will therefore approach the work with certain expectations and knowledge of the conclusion. Barthe addresses this challenge by opening her film with a flash-forward to its conclusion, before going back to the beginning and showing how said climax was achieved. This film brings an iconic – though not particularly well-liked – literary character to life in a way that will undoubtedly please fans of the novel and of the period piece genre as well.
French author Flaubert wrote his debut novel about a bored and adulterous doctor’s wife in 1876, and the work is now widely considered to be a masterpiece. When Madame Bovary (Mia Wasikowska) discovers that married life is not as thrilling as she had hoped it would be, she embarks on a series of extramarital affairs and begins to indulge in her extravagantly spendthrift ways. When she inevitably runs out of money and her lovers lose interest in her, Bovary is left ruined and must find somebody to turn to for assistance – but it does not appear as though there is anybody left to help her.
As expected, Wasikowska uses her lively spirit to bring this famous character to life. The more that Bovary is shackled by her husband and Wasikowska’s exuberance is oppressed, the more the audience is able to feel sympathy for her. Any actress who did not exude her natural spark would not be so tragic in her oppression, and Wasikowska manages to lend a bit of heart to a character that would otherwise be rather unsympathetic. Most of the actors who portray the secondary characters in the work, including Paul Giamatti, Olivier Gourmet, and Rhys Ifans, play their roles well and stay true to the book, although the widely varying accents that are used do become a bit of an odd distraction.
The pulpy font with which this film opens promises a scandalous and possibly unique period drama, but this film does play it rather safe and does not add anything particularly new to the genre. Where it excels instead is in its representations of well-known characters, as there is a major appeal in seeing these icons brought to life on the big screen. Much of the dialogue is lifted straight from the novel, and although some speeches may feel a bit stilted, most retain the classic feel of words written by a talented author. As Bovary begins to spend more and more money in the story, the costumes and sets become increasingly lovely and lavish in the film, and all is set off by pleasant music and scenery. A bit of humour exists in the work as well, adding to its watchability, although I do not remember laughing while reading the original book.
Audience members looking for an accurate adaptation of a beloved novel will undoubtedly come away pleased from this film version of Madame Bovary, as will those in search of a solid and well made period drama. The film does not act as a cross over piece, and will probably not interest those not in the aforementioned groups, yet this former literature student actually enjoyed experiencing this version more than the original source material. It takes an actress such as Wasikowska to render a naturally unappealing character interesting, and even a little bit sympathetic, and this young star proves herself more than up to the challenge.