It’s taken more than two years to complete and get it to our screens, but the latest adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s novel goes beyond costume-schlock into pacy period drama with strikingly modern resonances.
The tale of an ex-soldier turned grubby journalist in decadent, Bel-Epoch Paris in the 1890’s; his opportunist social climber, son of a peasant farmer, George du Roi, climbs the social ladder by way of the bedroom, both exploiting and exploited by the women in his life.
It’s a heady mix of sexual scandal and political corruption, love and betrayal, sitting on a line between Liaisons Dangereuse and Scandal. Alternately brooding and playful, it’s uneven and at times poorly compressed; plot points thud heavily onto screen to advance the narrative and often poor dialog gives way to lingering character reactions. This is where the performances work best, in what is left unsaid. There are some startlingly dramatic scenes in which halting conversations only imply the threats and counter-threats of people who clearly hate each other across lines of class and wealth.
Despite the presence of big-name stars Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci and Kristen Scott-Thomas, this immaculate, low-budget costume drama is really an art-house movie. Thanks to co-director Declan Donellan, first movie from this experienced theatre director, this is a set of character studies. Co-director Nick Ormerod brings the film-making skills and technical flair.
It seems like the cast are all making up for past crimes against cinema. R-Pats is maturing beyond charismatic grimaces, although as George du Roi, he swings between vulnerable man-child and amoral, calculating gigolo, with no shades between. Pattinson makes a very un-heroic lead as the shallow, talentless, angry young man on the make; if only he could do a little less twitching and gurning. Vain, petty and transparent, how he gets away with seducing Kristin Scott Thomas in church is a mystery we’ll pass on, for the sake of Scott-Thomas’ performance. Transforming another of her playing brittle, repressed women, she lets go magnificently as the besotted Virginie. Uma Thurman is a revelation as Madeleine Forestier, bringing a performance of real depth and pain in the second half. Christina Ricci is unrecognisable and pitch-perfect as Clothilde, complete with British accent.
It’s surprisingly even-handed, not to say sympathetic to all of them in so far as no one is particularly likeable and with a particularly French sensibility to sexual infidelity, the bedroom merry-go-round seems mostly inconvenient. Nobody seems to suffer any real punishment for their self-inflicted wounds and no one gets pregnant or STI’s. It’s odd that Georges comes out ahead at the end, despite all the hand-wringing in dark garrets. You’re left to make your own judgements.
Bold and mercifully short, it’s ahead of the usual costume fare. RC
Certification: R / UK15
Directors: Declan Donnellan, Nick Ormerod
Writer: Rachel Bennette adapted from Guy de Maupassant
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Philip Glenister, Christina Ricci, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colm Meaney.