Sophia Barthes’ Madame Bovary is a beautiful period adaptation of Gustav Flaubert’s novel that deals with its complicated heroine in a way that is both understanding and honest. The cinematography truly stands out as the star, making the film into a visual treat.
The story follows the new wife of village doctor, Emma Bovary (Mia Wasikowska), who soon finds herself bored of the limited entertainments of a 19th century French provincial town. Her disappointment in her situation soon drives her to live outside the appropriate rules of society, making dangerous attachments and getting caught up in rich belongings.
Wasikowska is allowed in this film to stretch her trademark understated performance, and she embraces both the initial quiet resignation and the later defiant fury that defines the character. She’s not an easy character to empathise with either, especially in comparison to her caring and well-meaning husband, but Barthes chooses to take away much of the original emphasis on Monsieur Bovary in the novel. Instead she gives most of the time to the heroine, allowing the audience to greater understand her perspective and motives.
Wasikowska isn’t the only one making an impression, however, as she’s surrounded by a cast of both familiar faces and new stars. Brilliant character actor Rhys Ifans is clearly having fun as the villainous merchant, tricking characters into self-destruction with some serious smooth-talking, whilst the great Paul Giamatti makes an appearance, albeit in an unfortunately small role.
The greatest asset to the film lies in the visual appearance of Madame Bovary. From an exhilarating hunt scene to the stunning French setting, Barthes and cinematographer Andrij Parekh manage to capture an ethereal impression of the surroundings. It fits well in fact with Emma’s disassociation of the life that she is prescribed, with the dreamlike world around her refusing to be part of reality either. The costumes are sumptuously designed too- a period drama requirement for success of course, but still no less enriching.
Madame Bovary breathes vibrant and rich life into a classic story, with a delicate hand and a careful eye. Not only is it a must for lovers of period drama and stunning visuals, but many viewers will find some empathy in a character who is willing to take into her own hands a change from a mundane existence.
Madame Bovary has gone straight to DVD, and is now available to buy online and in shops. This review was first published on 11/10/14 as part of the London Film Festival blog for Empire.