There have been many film versions of Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel “Madame Bovary,” but this is the first one directed by a woman, French-born Sophie Barthes (“Cold Souls”), who wrote the adaptation with Rose Barreneche. Perhaps fittingly, and certainly to the movie’s advantage, Barthes and Barreneche excised the parts of the book that focused on the husband, making Madame Bovary the exclusive heroine and telling her story with a certain feminine sympathy.
Mia Wasikowska plays the tragic heroine here, the listless wife of a nice but boring country doctor (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) in provincial France. Emma Bovary had no idea marriage (or indeed life) would be so stifling and uneventful. She amuses herself with fashion and home decor, which she buys on credit from an unctuous purveyor (Rhys Ifans), and eventually with extramarital affairs with a dandy law clerk (Ezra Miller, who comes across as too modern and American for the role) and a dashing marquis (Logan Marshall-Green).
Regardless of how restrictive life could be for a woman in the 1850s — and Barthes shows plenty of period details to remind us — we agree the proper response is not to run up debts and cheat on one’s husband. But it’s not that simple. For all her faults, Emma is misused by men more than she is a misuser of them. She doesn’t want to hurt anyone: she only wants to be happy. “I will not remain standing inert in a field of despair!” she cries, her flowery language typical of the film’s dialogue.
Nonetheless, we know intuitively (and because Barthes tells us in the first scene) that Emma must eventually pay the piper one way or another. In that regard, the film doesn’t rely on suspense or story, but on tone and atmosphere. It’s quite beautifully photographed by Andrij Parekh, with the lush sets, costumes, and lighting that give period dramas so much of their appeal. Wasikowska is excellent, just as she was in last year’s “Stoker,” at playing a messy, unusual woman with conflicting emotions. It’s a handsome production that should appeal to fans of handsome costume dramas.
B (1 hr., 58 min.; )