Film Review: Madame Bovary
Madame Bovary (2014, United Kingdom) 3.5 stars
Everyone enjoys a good period drama. There’s something special about being transported back to days long past. You get to marvel at the impractical clothes, for instance, and how everyone always seems to be a bit hungry and a bit grubby. Better than that, though, is the chance admire life in simpler times and compare it to how the world is nowadays. We watch an historical drama, and then leave the cinema thinking “gosh, isn’t it good that we no longer have any of their problems these days? No slavery/death from preventable diseases/subjugation of women.” Of course, once you get home and look at the news, you realise that we haven’t changed at all. Life is just as harsh as it’s always been – the clothes have just gotten better, the quality of food has improved, and we’re now bigger on personal hygiene than any other point in history.
One thing that definitely hasn’t changed at all is the gulf that can develop between our expectations and our realities. The titular Madame Bovary is Emma, a simple country girl who marries the doctor from the next village, filled with giddy dreams of what the life of the country doctor’s wife is. It’s all parties and frocks and upward social mobility. Her reality is very different – her husband doesn’t make much money, and he’s quite content to live out his days peacefully in their small Norman village, visiting patients at home, and enjoying his garden of an evening (provided it’s not too cold or too wet). Emma very quickly grows bored with it all, and embarks on a dangerous path of debt and extra-marital rumpy-pumpy.
This adaptation of Flaubert’s 1856 magnum opus is fairly faithful to the text. Mia Wasikowska’s portrayal of Emma perfectly captures the archetype of the bored housewife that Flaubert created. Her portrayal moves perfectly from the optimistic and doe-eyed naïf to the sexually and socially frustrated twentysomething woman-of-the-world, and reaches a theatrical zenith as the debt-ridden, depressed, and humiliated girl. Rhys Ifans is a delight as the slithery and louche L’Heureux, and Ezra Miller is a particularly youthful and seductive Leon Dupuis. The lighting and cinematography cleverly combine with the acting to create a powerfully bleak portrayal of loneliness and boredom, and of the results of not acknowledging the unrequited needs of your lover.
The specific plot of Madame Bovary might only be a century and a half old, but its moralising tale of the dangers of unrealistic and unrealised expectations is as old as humanity itself. It’s a story we can all recognise and identify with. It’s a story that is true no matter when the story is told.
Michael Tarry 25th May 2015
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