The Latest ‘Madame Bovary’ Pits Its Star Against Her Dialogue

The trick with any adaptation of Flaubert’s brilliantly humdrum tragedy: how to make ennui engaging. Director Sophie Barthes has little luck in this latest trek down Madame Bovary’s road to Rouen.

Lead Mia Wasikowska looks convincingly miserable in the role of a young wife who’s driven to seek her pleasures outside the marital bed, but whatever complexities roil in the character’s heart and head are nowhere to be found on her face. Perhaps that’s why Barthes tasks the skies with communicating her oppression for us: Clouds brood, mists shroud, and it might be tough for anyone who hasn’t read the novel to catch why she is more miserable than anyone else in this Normandy.

The one struggle that is clear and dramatic? Wasikowska, working a flaky Aussie/Valley Girl accent, vs. some unspeakable dialogue: “Is this the will of God?” her Emma mopes, early on. “Is my future just a dark corridor with a bolted door at the end?” Later, she snaps at Rhys Ifans’s ripely wicked merchant Lheureux, “Don’t you think your timing is a trifle inopportune?” — and she sounds as convincing as you would if, right at this moment, you declaimed the line to a stranger.

There are moments that work, mostly the times that our miserable heroine power-walks over the hills or through the muddy streets of northern France, the camera trailing along just behind her head. She storms with purpose, and the movie — often slow, never rich — finally seems to be getting somewhere. Many supporting players are strong, and the gowns and landscapes are worth regarding.

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