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Madame Bovary (2014)

Directed by Sophie Barthes

3 stars

Country doctor Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) weds Emma (Mia Wasikowska), rescuing her from the stultifying existence that a convent education and life as a farmer’s daughter have decreed for her.

For the unambitious and barely competent Charles, this marriage is an end-point in itself, the limit of his aspirations. However, Emma wishes for much more, and neither Charles nor his modest income will stand in the way of her desire to climb the social ladder.

Even for those unfamiliar with the source novel the fate awaiting Emma will be clear, since that is where the movie begins. This in-escapability puts us firmly in the land of tragedy, and the story that unfolds is undoubtedly tragic in the strict sense of the word. Emma uses other people, notably the hapless Charles and her long-suffering servant, but is more often used and abused, most cruelly by the obsequiously venal merchant, M. Lheureux, a wonderful performance by Rhys Ifans that culminates in an emotionally brutal rejection of Emma, one of many she receives as the final scenes of the story play out.

The acting is generally good to excellent, though it was a shame so little use was made of Paul Giamatti’s talents as M. Homais, and Charles Bovary himself remains a very inert figure, providing little scope for Henry Lloyd-Hughes. Mia Wasikowska is an effective Emma, though she fails to achieve the transparency and intensity she demonstrated in 2011’s Jane Eyre.

The real problem with the movie is that we see the tragedy unfolding in a technical sense, but we are not sufficiently engaged with it to care. Early scenes of a carefree, happy Emma are not enough to make us identify with her, or at least care deeply enough, to be affected by her downfall.

Compare this with the other version of more-or-less thesame story produced this year, and also shown at TIFF 2014: Gemma Bovery. There, the director entrances us with a character of immense energy and attractiveness, so that when her life ends, it matters to us – we feel her loss.

By contrast, Madame Bovary feels workmanlike but never quite compelling.

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