“Madame Bovary” begins as teenage Emma is packing up her belongings and preparing to leave the convent to marry the man her farmer father has arranged as her husband: country doctor Charles Bovary (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). But life in the small, provincial town of Yonville soon makes her miserable, as she spends her days alone reading or wandering in the garden while Charles tends to patients. Even when he’s home, he’s such a numbing drag that he may as well not even be there.
Emma longs for more—excitement, passion, status, love. She shows restraint at first when smitten law clerk Leon Dupuis (a boyishly romantic Ezra Miller) skittishly professes his affections for her. But she’s definitely ready for extramarital activities once the dashing Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green) makes even more overt advances. The affair emboldens her and gives her glimpse of the good life, inspiring her to spend more and more money she doesn’t have on lavish dresses and decorations from the obsequious dry-goods dealer Monsieur Lheureux (Rhys Ifans), who’s all-too happy to continue extending her credit. Marshall-Green and Ifans both do their best to enliven the proceedings, the former with sheer sex appeal and the latter with sly menace. Similarly, Paul Giamatti—who starred in Barthes’ last feature, the kooky and clever sci-fi comedy “Cold Souls”—nails the pushy patter of local pharmacist Monsieur Homais.
But as we know—either from reading the book in high school or merely from watching the first few moments of Barthes’ film—Emma’s longing for upward mobility becomes her downfall. There’s little tension as her romantic and financial calamities collide, only mere traces of tragedy. Even at nearly two hours, much-needed character development is sorely lacking.
“Madame Bovary” is never less than lovely to look at. Cinematographer Andrij Parekh’s melancholy images seamlessly combine muck and luxury, sometimes within the same image, in a way that’s reminiscent of Joe Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice” and Thomas Vinterberg’s “Far From the Madding Crowd”.