Tag Archives: Mia Wasikowska

“Madame Bovary” (2014)–a Film Review

14 Jun
Madame Bavary (2014) film poster. Copyright: Aden Film, Aleph Motion Pictures, Left Field Ventures, Occupant Entertainment, Radiant Films International. See Wikipedia page for this image for fair use guidelines.

Madame Bovary (2014) film poster. Copyright: Aden Film, Aleph Motion Pictures, Left Field Ventures, Occupant Entertainment, Radiant Films International. See Wikipedia for fair use guidelines.

Madame Bovary (2014), a film by Sophie Barthes, stars Mia Wasikowska as Emma Bovary, the iconic woman created by Flaubert in his 1857 novel. Wasikowska’s name has appeared on this blog before, when she excelled in two other roles based on Fictional 100 characters: Jane Eyre and Alice in Wonderland. A little older now, she succeeds once again in embodying the unhappily married Madame Bovary.

As in Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre film, this film opens with a scene of Wasikowska running outdoors, in desperate flight from something. Both films then proceed to tell their stories in flashback. Wasikowska can certainly fill the screen with her resolute quiet; whereas as Jane Eyre this denoted her discretion and strongly principled character, as Emma Bovary, her quiet masks her restless, troubled inner life and her felt need for growing deceptions.  The first changes, though, are not hidden but very visible in her acquisition–on credit–of new stylish clothes for herself and furnishings for the house she shares with her benign, country-doctor husband Charles. At first, she rebuffed the insinuating offers of Monsier Lheureux (l’heureux means “the happy one”), who tempted her to borrow from him for his expensive goods; his success at leading her into debt represents her first seduction.  The romantic affairs that will follow, with “The Marquis” and Léon, are an outgrowth of this first fall from innocence.  She craves the romance of luxury and love, hoping to replace the emptiness and disappointment she found in the stifling constriction of Yonville and her confining marriage. She can hardly breathe, and so her restraint and quiet demeanor break open, becoming in the end a frantic rush to destruction.

This film departs markedly from previous films and especially from Flaubert’s novel. Several crucial elements are missing:

  • Berthe, the child of Emma and Charles, does not appear here. There is no mention of her having a child at all. In the novel, this fact serves to underline another area of life in which Emma could find no satisfaction. Flaubert’s Emma was unable to love or bond with her small daughter, a further wound to her marriage, which made her susceptible to falling in love with other men that crossed her path. Emma’s tragic ending is also more poignant because of the daughter she leaves behind.
  • Rodolphe Boulanger is subsumed in the character of the Marquis d’Andervilliers who gives a ball early in the novel. It made more sense in the novel that farming landowner Rodolphe would be speaking (and flirting) with Emma at an agricultural fair.
  • Likewise, the village of Tostes and the town of Yonville are merged. This misses that Charles was sensitive enough to Emma’s unhappiness to move to a larger, albeit still rural, setting for their life together.  However, it is understandable that the screenplay for a two-hour film must make these kinds of abbreviations of plot.
  • In Rouen, Emma and Léon rendezvous in the Cathedral and take a carriage to a room to make love; however, this director chose not to show us one of the novel’s most famous scenes: in which the couple make love in the closed carriage itself, as it circles around the city; Flaubert brilliantly suggests the passionate embraces inside by the sole detail of Emma’s ungloved hand in the window of the jostling carriage.
  • The pharmacist Monsieur Homais’s character and behavior is sketched so roughly that viewers may not understand that he is in competition with the new doctor in town for patients, which motivates his insistence that Charles attempt a risky operation on a local boy. He is friend to neither Charles nor Emma.
  • Finally, this film chooses to have Emma die alone in the forest after she has taken poison, thereby missing some of the most important scenes in the novel, and the only ones that hint at any rapprochement of the couple and a sort of redemption, in the midst of tragedy.  In Flaubert’s treatment, Emma ingests a fatal dose of arsenic but takes several days to succumb, during which time she tries to comfort Charles, realizing perhaps the depth of his essential goodness and true love for her. “You’re good, not like the others,” she says to him.

Since I have listed elements I found missing in this adaptation, let me finish out this review by praising an aspect of the film that I found illuminating and symbolically satisfying. Twice, Emma goes to the local priest in his church in Yonville, hoping for some sort of guidance and comfort–neither of which she finds.  The first time was especially telling: all the while she is trying to talk to him, a group of unruly children are running in the small sanctuary and the priest interrupts her to reprimand them. After he offers a few, insufficient words urging her to be happy with the roof over her head and food (and a good fellow for a husband), he sends her away, excusing himself to “get these very devils ready for Communion.”  Right in front of him was a troubled young woman, being assailed by devils of her own, tempted by the Devil himself (in the form of Lheureux) and her own passions, and he couldn’t see it. She was the one who needed some real communion with grace–a compassionate confessor and some wise words of faith to strengthen her–and this priest had little to give her.  If only she could have encountered a Monsieur Myriel such as appeared in the path of Jean Valjean at exactly the time when he needed him!  In Emma, Flaubert portrayed some of the cracks that were appearing in traditional faith during the 19th century. His villain Homais was an atheist, and it would take more than good will and going through the motions of religion to stand up to the spiritual crisis of the people at that time (or any time!).  Sophie Barthes handles these scenes between the priest and Emma with illuminating clarity for the audience, although Emma is left to plunge into her own darkness without any supports to grasp.

I recommend the film for Mia Wasikowska’s genuine portrayal of Emma and Rhys Ifan’s scary take on Lheureux. He recently played a secretive, but loyal Mycroft Holmes in the Elementary series for TV, but he is truly sinister here. The film is visually beautiful, punctuated by Emma’s stunning costumes, many of them in a fiery orange.

Fires Blazing and Suppressed: Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre” (2011)

20 Apr

Cary Fukunaga’s new film “Jane Eyre” sets off at a run. Our first view of Jane is not in the cold, confining settings of Aunt Reed’s house or the Lowood School, but at Thornfield, at the moment when Jane gathers her things and bolts out of Rochester’s domain, running away from it and him, through the rocky, overgrown fields as anxious perspiration beads upon her straining face. A beginning in medias res, for sure.

After 27 film and television adaptations (by the count in USA Today‘s review), not to mention the wide currency of Charlotte Brontë’s classic 1847 novel, a director approaching the story could count on two things: viewers know the plot almost scene by scene, and many will be looking for something distinctive in the telling. The distinctive entry point for the story that Fukunaga chose proves dramatically effective, especially when it recurs, Groundhog Day-style, in its proper order later in the film. The story jumps back and forth from setting to setting, and so is told out of order on the global scale, but except for Jane’s desperate exit from Thornfield, I believe that the chronological order of events is preserved within settings: at the Riverses’ house, at Lowood School, at Aunt Reed’s, and at Thornfield. This adaptation adds the spice of originality but keeps the main flavors authentic throughout.

Roger Ebert comments on the indispensable atmosphere for Gothic romance: the “costumes, sets, locations, sound design and the wind and rain,” all abundantly present and masterfully set before us in this film. The interiors are convincingly cold and the exteriors threateningly wild. The accents of speech are varied and appropriate–Jane herself speaks with a hint of Irish in her well-controlled voice.

At age 21, but looking even younger than the 19 years possessed by Jane, Mia Wasikowska has already mastered the art of understatement in acting. At times, she is nearly expressionless and one must look for the merest muscle twitch to read her emotions. But look and you will find it. When Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench!) tells Jane that Rochester is returning to Thornfield after one of his sudden, extended absences, she barely begins to smile when her lips fall, almost imperceptibly, at the added intelligence that Blanche Ingram will be among the large party of guests. When Blanche does arrive and play her catty drawing-room scene, she gets almost no attention from the camera. Jane doesn’t look directly at her and neither do we. Why bother, when we know she’ll soon be gone?

Michael Fassbender’s Rochester keeps up a high pitch of “Sturm und Drang”–restlessly active, irritable, and anxious. Despite Jane’s impassive shell, she betrays a stormy luminosity in his presence. I found the attraction between them to be palpable and more physical than is often allowed. Rochester protests again and again that he wants her soul, and that he will not stop till he has extracted it, through every cell of her body. When he begs Jane to stay, in spite of his marriage to Bertha, he clings to her with such force, he draws out from her all the anguish and tears that match his own desolation. I have seen this scene so many times, played haughtily or desperately by Rochester, resolutely or compassionately by Jane, but in this film, I especially felt his acute misery and the terrible pull of her indecision, making it all the clearer that she could not walk out–she had to run.

In my title, I refer to fire as a theme in Brontë and in this film. Fire occurs early and late in the story, both times set by the first Mrs. Rochester. When she sets his bed curtains ablaze, Jane saves her new employer, and their intimacy quickly ratchets up. After Jane leaves, Thornfield finally burns. Rochester can save everyone in the house but Bertha, who falls to her death; he is injured and left blind. His plea to Jane, spirit to spirit, recalls her to him, and their “trial by fire” is ended.

Fire is equally a theme for young Jane Eyre, played with clarity and fervor by Amelia Clarkson. In Mrs. Reed’s “Red Room,” where Jane is locked up as punishment, all her fears reach a fever pitch when black smoke backs up and roars out of the fireplace on its own. Banished to the evil care of Mr. Brocklehurst, headmaster of Lowood School, she is told that rebellious girls, such as she, will spend eternity in the fiery pit of Hell. Jane’s private hell is relieved for a time by the friendship of Helen Burns (yes, Burns), who too soon dies of tuberculosis while sleeping beside Jane, their hands clasped.

Finally (this is, after all, Gothic romance), the “fire” in Jane’s soul never goes out through all her suffering. For many years she suppresses it, she tames it, but she also tends it, hidden from those who would seek to smother it. It blazes out in her speech to Rochester:

Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!–I have as much soul as you and full as much heart!

And again it flares when she must fight to leave him, fight for the flame of inner truth and selfhood she can’t extinguish even for love, even for him. 

Watching this Jane Eyre in a crowded theater on a warm Sunday afternoon, I felt that all these people were here for Jane–drawn not by one particular film (excellent as this one is), but by Jane the character, whose hard life and courageous love story they know so well. Jane is a fictional luminary and also an intimate friend, and she had made another film, so we all just had to be there.

Find more about Jane Eyre at The Fictional 100.

Related post:

I Won’t Forget “Alice” on Oscar Night, which includes my high praise for Mia Wasikowska as Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

I Won’t Forget “Alice” on Oscar Night

22 Feb

About a year ago, Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” premiered, in all its glorious, grey-washed, yet intense color and with the trappings of 3D, vines, tendrils, Jabberwocky, and all. I wanted to see it on opening day (not an effort I usually make). My husband was working, so I went out to our local multiplex in early afternoon, put on my big plastic glasses, and settled in for the experience. Despite a fairly full theater, having no particular companion concentrated my full attention on the screen. Soon, just like Alice running after the White Rabbit, I was running after Alice and tumbling through the hole, down the hollow tree into Wonderland. Tim Burton’s Wonderland.



The color palette grabbed me before anything else, which makes me delighted to see that “Alice in Wonderland” has received three Academy Award nominations for elements of its artistic achievement: Art Direction, Visual Effects, and Costume Design. Only in the Costume Design category is it favored for a win, according to the oddsmakers. I think Johnny Depp’s performance went much deeper than his Mad Hatter’s Hat and makeup; nevertheless, I am glad to see the costumes recognized. I also realize that some of the best films have only garnered artistic or technical Oscars, but were better appreciated later for their excellence overall. A case in point: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. I am sorry that Oscar voters did not place  “Alice” among its 10 nominees for Best Picture, since it was my favorite of the year’s films and the box-office winner worldwide. 

On Oscar night this Sunday, February 27, 2011, I will be remembering “Alice in Wonderland” with great affection for that first magical screening last March. In subsequent months, I found that “Alice in Wonderland” is a film that bears many repeated viewings on cable or DVD, even without 3D, and it seems more perfect and harmoniously constructed each time I see it. But here let me share the review I wrote that day last year, in the passionate throes of first viewing:

Moonlight Becomes Her: A Review of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland
by Lucy Pollard-Gott (March 5, 2010)

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland looks and feels like a Tim Burton movie, not a pastel-hued, scene-by-scene rendering of Lewis Carroll’s immortal Alice books. But in the end, that is the strength of this bold, visually stunning film. Carroll’s mythmaking and, more importantly, his characters prove they are vibrantly alive by how well they survive and thrive in such transformation.

Transformed indeed. Alice (played by winsome and willowy Mia Wasikowska) has grown up to age 20, but is still dreamy and imaginative, still questioning. After she no longer has the protection of her understanding father, recently deceased, she is nearly pushed into a stifling aristocratic marriage that seems designed to quash her mind and her freedom. When she spies the white, waist-coated Rabbit, she flees in pursuit of him rather than accept such a proposal. Next to that, a frightening fall through an almost endless rabbit hole seems like a welcome relief. As objects and images whiz past her, and she tumbles past them, her descent can’t help but evoke Dorothy Gale’s equally frightening ascent, when caught up by the Kansas cyclone. There is even a flying bed, reminding us of Alice’s recurrent thought that, surely, this must all be a dream.

Alice lands in the faithfully rendered locked room, and by means of just the right key and drink (“Drink me”) and cake (“Eat me”), she emerges–for the first time, she thinks–into Wonderland. This much we expect. Yet this world is not the Wonderland of our childhood memories, and it’s certainly no smiling Oz, albeit a bit more colorful than anything we’ve seen so far in the film. We don’t usually think of Wonderland as a twilight world, even when it is threatened by such creatures as the Jabberwocky or the frumious Bandersnatch. But Burton’s misty and mysterious art direction bathes Alice in moonlight and shadow, and blond as she is, she still projects a liminal beauty between light and dark.

Alice has forgotten, or repressed, her childhood adventures beyond the looking glass, and so she must figure out where she is and even who she is, as she meets one creature after another who takes her measure and finds her wanting in comparison to the old (that is, younger) Alice they remember. Can she really be the one whose return they have been anticipating? As in most adaptations, Carroll’s creatures from several books (Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and even a little Hunting of the Snark thrown in) all meet in a conflated jumble to populate the movie Wonderland. After all, who would wish to wait for a sequel to see Tweedledum and Tweedledee?

But as soon as Alice follows the Cheshire Cat, languidly voiced by Stephen Fry, and is reunited with the Mad Hatter (a resplendently batty Johnny Depp), he will lead her to the site of an old attack by the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter) who snatched the crown from her more pacific sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Burton’s ruined Wonderland is beautiful in its devastation, a type of landscape he does so well (as in The Corpse Bride or even The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, also starring Depp). The Hatter tells Alice that the White Queen needs her to remember who she is and champion the realm, defeating the Red Queen’s Jabberwocky with the Vorpal sword (because of Carroll, a standard issue weapon familiar to many role-play gamers). The moments deep in the burned forest when Depp recites snatches of the “Jabberwocky” poem lift the scene to a higher dimension, 3D or not.

Stayne, the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), ambushes the Hatter, Alice, and their creature friends but captures only the Hatter. Alice is still unsure about herself, and definitely not sure that she wants anything to do with the dread Jabberwocky, but she knows one thing for certain–she wants to go and rescue Johnny Depp!

How she chooses to deal with the quest laid upon her will determine the quality of the adulthood she has earned. Even with an older Alice, the film retains a certain playfulness, though a little grisly at times; be sure to look for poignant moments that flash back to the child Alice. This film may not satisfy purists, but it is purely magical.

Alice ranks 25th on The Fictional 100 by Lucy Pollard-Gott.

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