Mia Wasikowska dons another corset for another lavish period film based on a literary classic. This time it’s “Madame Bovary,” and this version is the first to be directed by a woman, Sophie Barthes, who last directed the ingenious 2009 film “Cold Souls.”
The details — for example, Madame Bovary’s actual corset — fill the story to the brim with authenticity, not just historic but emotional. The problem with depicting an authentically dull life is that the film threatens at times to become equally dull. Any question of suspense, which is hard to create in a story that has been filmed as many times as this one, is completely settled in the film’s opening sequence, in which a distressed Madame Bovary rushes through a forest and keels over, clutching a little bottle of poison.
Nevertheless, being bored by a Wasikowska performance is still pretty worthwhile, an experience better described as being enthralled, even if you might check your watch once or twice. She is the opposite of a manic pixie dream girl; she is wholly unsympathetic, her character refusing to please anyone else, and the actress refusing to charm the audience.
A supporting cast ably surrounds the film’s star. I particularly enjoyed Rhys Ifans as the merchant who introduces Madame Bovary to the concept of “credit” and enables her problematic retail therapy. A stable of lovers also help Madame Bovary pass the time, but all of these things are just acts of desperation for a woman who has no way out of her life.
Her husband is a kind but unremarkable country doctor, lacking in ambition, while his wife dreams of moving to Rouen, a city of culture and education. She becomes obsessed with Rouen, but her husband’s attempt at a career-making surgery that might have made upward mobility possible ends grotesquely. While the town priest chastises her that anyone who is warm and not hungry has no right to complain, the grass remains resolutely greener on the other side of the fence for the doomed woman.
Visually, this film is absolutely gorgeous. From the increasingly beautiful costumes to the rich landscapes and even the lighting, it is a sumptuous and meticulous accomplishment. The content does not always stun in the way that the visuals do. I thought it particularly odd that they wrote out Madame Bovary’s child. I would think this added dimension would increase the drama. While largely impeccable as an adaptation, dialing up the drama would not have hurt.
Currently available to rent on Hoopla, the free digital check-out service from the Mobile Public Library, and elsewhere. Register at www.mplonline.org.