It is wise to approach a new screen version of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” with caution.
In even the best of productions Flaubert’s tale of a foolish young wife — so convinced that she deserves a life of romance and luxury that she drives herself and her poor sap of a husband to ruin — is a downer.
The movies’ track record with Emma Bovary is spotty. Americans are most familiar with the 1949 version starring Jennifer Jones, a spectacular beauty who oozed sexuality. It was easy enough to view her Emma as born to wickedness, and the character’s ultimate downfall must have proven particularly satisfying to misogynists who could argue that this is just the way these silly women are.
Now director Sophie Barthes emphasizes the tragedy in Flaubert’s tale by casting as Emma the wan Mia Wasikowska, who at age 25 could pass for a teenager. No voluptuary, Wasikowska — we first noticed her as the title character in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” — has the physical presence of a gawky adolescent.
In fact, Barthes and Felipe Marino’s screenplay opens with young Emma being educated by nuns. She’s a free spirit, though, who won’t follow instructions, and the next thing you know she’s being married off to country doctor Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) and planted in his drab house in a drab village filled with drab people.
Thoroughly unworldly (she grew up in a nunnery, remember), Emma is dismayed that her life is such a letdown compared to her youthful (and unrealistic) ambitions. Charles is hard-working but not the sort of fellow to sweep a girl off her feet. He’s unlikely to ever become famous or wealthy.
Thus Emma quickly falls under the sway of Lheureux (Rhys Ifans, marvelously oily), the local purveyor of luxury clothing and home decor items who convinces his new customer that a beauty of her caliber deserves to be surrounded by the best. Not to worry — the purchases can all be made on credit.
Emma yearns for a romance worthy of her smashing new wardrobe. She wants to be adored, and thinks she’s found it with the Marquis (Logan Mashall-Green) the local bachelor nobleman. When that goes south she rebounds into the arms of young Leon (Ezra Miller), a handsome clerk who shares some of her romantic fantasies.
All these debts — financial and moral — eventually come due — though right up to the last moment Emma seems convinced that she was only living the life she deserved.
Wasikowska — who a few years back gave us a psychologically challenging Jane Eyre — is the key to making this work. She exudes not innocence, exactly, but a naivete about the ways of the world that makes her an all-too-willing overreacher. With the exception of the sweet but dull husband, the men in her life (Paul Giamatti is fine as Charles’ pompous best friend) are exploiters of this weakness. Not that she’s guiltless, but she gets lots of unfortunate encouragement along the way.
The production values (the film is set in 1850‘s rural France) are right on the money, although Barthes makes a point of mostly filming by candlelight or beneath overcast skies. There’s nothing sunny about this woman’s eager tailspin toward destruction.