Flaubert’s 1856 novel, Madame Bovary, is a masterpiece, a pioneering work of nineteenth century realism which resulted in an 1857 obscenity trial, as much instigated by Flaubert’s scathing observations of middle-class pretentiousness as by its depiction of the heroine’s sexual escapades. The story of Emma, a country girl with a convent education, who aspires to a grander life than that she finds married to a dull country doctor, has intrigued generations of readers, each reinterpreting the work in the light of changing mores.
The novel has also inspired film makers. Pauline Kael mentions a 1932 production with Lila Lee, and she lauds the lost, longer version of Jean Renoir’s 1934 Bovary. (Offer a prayer for its restoration!) Still further releases came in 1937 (Pola Negri), 1949 (Vincente Minnelli directing Jennifer Jones), and 1991 (Claude Chabrol directing Isabelle Huppert). (Minnelli, it seems, opted for romanticized costume drama, while Chabrol brought his often icy tone to the work.)
The BBC produced two earlier versions (1964, 1975) and now, once again, gives it a go, co-producing with WGBH for Masterpiece Theatre. From its opening scenes in an Ursuline convent, director Tim Fywell establishes both the power of the church in people’s lives in the mid-nineteenth century and Emma’s passion straining against restriction. When her mother dies, she returns to the family farm, living with her devoted father in rural isolation. She meets, charms, and marries Dr. Charles Bovary (Hugh Bonneville), a young widower who loves her deeply, but fulfills neither her romantic fantasies nor her sexual hungers.
They attend a ball given by local nobility where Emma (Frances O’Connor, Mansfield Park) dances a glorious waltz with a dashing viscount, an experience she later describes as the most perfect moment in her life, revealing the limits of her shallow imagination. Where Minnelli’s ball scene was on a grand scale, Fywell has just Emma and her partner dance alone on a smallish dance floor, which seems a bit odd at a ball, though it does wonders for the budget. Fywell has the couple maintaining intense eye contact and stretches out the scene for emphasis.
(Overall, the budget must surely have been generous for this production, much of which was shot in appropriate French country locations. It has a pleasingly rich and authentic period look with lush color throughout.)
When Emma begins her first affair, with Rodolphe (Greg Wise), she exclaims to herself, "I have a lover!" and seems more carried away with the idea than with the reality. Later scenes establish graphically, but always in good taste (by current standards, that is), that passion, indeed, grew intense. In time Emma’s unrealistic possessiveness runs parallel to Rodolphe’s flagging interest. Rodolphe here is seen almost entirely in a sympathetic light, as if from Emma’s viewpoint. His cynicism is barely noticed. Emma’s second liaison, with a young student (Hugh Dancy), is also heated and, in the end, equally unrealistic and doomed.
Along the way there is a richness of incident – the birth of Emma’s daughter, a failed scheme to correct a patient’s club foot to gain fame and wealth for Dr. Bovary, the critical disapproval of Emma’s nightmare of a mother-in-law (Eileen Adkins), Emma’s profligate spending. Each development further reveals her selfishness, her unrealistic expectations, her insensitivities – particularly to her doggishly loyal husband. If her youthful fantasies and yearnings, straining against rigid, repressive standards are understandable – and even sympathetic – she proves to be unable to find a reconciliation with the realities of her life and acknowledgment of her own mistakes.
The dialogue in this adaptation is occasionally plodding, but fine performances by all the principals go a long way to compensate. O’Connor is convincing in the demanding role of Emma – there is hardly a moment when she is not on screen. It is hard to warm up, though, to such a fundamentally unlikable character. Fywell leads Adkins almost to caricature. When she tells her son that he loves his wife more than he does her – and acknowledges that that is the way it should be – she doesn’t soften in the least. The male roles are better modulated and all played with conviction and skill.
Fywell’s restraint in not romanticizing Emma’s plight is his most effective choice in the overall sweep of the film. It is a problem, dramatically speaking, having an essentially unappealing character like Emma at the center of things and hewing closely to her point of view. If Emma has a romanticized view of the world, Flaubert surely did not and Fywell understands that. More balanced characterizations might have produced a dramatically more effective film, but at least the easy, sentimental solutions have been avoided. This is an intelligent and respectful adaptation, beautifully made, and, while surely not the last filmic word, as it were, on Madame Bovary, it makes for engrossing viewing.