While I will likely look back on 2015 as a more memorable year than its predecessor, full of films that are worth getting excited about for how they inject life into tired, overdone genres (eg. Love and Mercy, Wild, Mommy, Breathe), there have been a handful of films that have left me cold. Now, this is not out of the fact that they are objectively bad. If a film is bad, there can sometimes be some entertainment in it (see: Serena or Winter’s Tale), where the experience of watching it is remembered fondly for how hilariously bad it was. Rather, it’s just flat-out uninspiring, a fruitless slog that is neither entertaining or memorable.
Like Rupert Wyatt’s remake of James Toback’s The Gambler (another film that left me completely cold and has been quickly forgotten), despite the promising talent behind it, Sophie Barthes’s adaptation of Madame Bovary sadly becomes just that – an unmemorable chore.
You see, period drama is going through a resurgence right now. What could it be traced back to? Well, arguably the first wave of it started with the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice 20 years ago, an appetite that would be renewed with Joe Wright’s adaptation of the same Jane Austen novel ten years later, and with Downton Abbey this decade.
But the side effect of this obsession with everything from bygone eras and aristocracies that, in a rush to capitalise on the madness, everything in sight has been made into a film, without much consideration of the fact that it was firstly the singularity of the work at the time, unaccompanied by a bunch of contemporaries, and the slightly unconventional approach (Wright’s Pride and Prejudice feels energetic and loose, far from the contained presentations we’re used to) that drew the crowds in in the first place.
So when something as old and often adapted and studied as Flaubert’s tale of a young woman (played by Mia Wasikowska) driven to madness by numerous extramarital relationships is to be tackled, the time for conventionality is long over. This is not to be found in the screenplay, which is a purely textbook transcribing of the novel. Director Sophie Barthes (Cold Souls, which also starred Paul Giamatti) attempts unconventionality on a level, inserting dramatic music to try make a melodrama of a source material that simply isn’t. But beyond that, Barthes directs in an absent style that makes the film indistinguishable from the many period dramas before it, which bleeds over to a disappionting and uneven (Paul Giamatti and Ezra Miller stick to their American accents, Wasikowska never settles on a single accent, and Rhys Ifans is the only one who gets close to an accent appropriate for the film’s French setting) set of lead performances from an otherwise very promising cast.
An easy point of comparison for how Madame Bovary could have been successful from this year alone is Thomas Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd, which did just that, subverting tired cliches to create a raw, relatable adaptation. Vinterberg brought his Dogme stylings to the project, which freed the film from an otherwise restrained adaptation to become something more free and honest. With the talent behind it, Madame Bovary could have achieved this, but instead, becomes a forgettable, strict adaptation of the novel, destined for English classes.
Madame Bovary is in Australian cinemas now.