Robert Pattinson broods and swoons his way through this beautifully shot costume drama from a duo of theatre veterans.
Guy de Maupassant’s second novel, Bel Ami, or, The History of a Scoundrel, is ideal fodder for a cinematic costume outing. The subject of several films, including Germany’s Bel Ami (1939) and the first English-language, The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947), it is surprising that this hasn’t been given the lavish post-Merchant-Ivory production values until now. Yet rather than falling to the familiar roster of BBC graduates, British stage veterans Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod get behind the cameras for the first time for this sumptuous adaptation.
It is the 1880s in Paris, and Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson) has just returned from the French Army after a three year stint in Algeria. All but destitute, a chance encounter with the older Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), a newspaper editor, literally opens the door to Parisian high society. Invited to dinner at Forestier’s home, he first encounters the three women who will ultimately change his life: Madeleine (Uma Thurman), Forestier’s wife and the real brains behind the throne, helps Georges secure a job at her husband’s powerful newspaper; the flirtatious Clotilde (Christina Ricci), with whom Georges starts an affair, and the older Madame Rousset (Kristin Scott Thomas), who has connections that could make or break anybody in Paris. Georges will not stop until he at the top of their world.
Outside of the Twilight Saga franchise, star Pattinson has had little success in securing any major crossover roles, with Water for Elephants and Remember Me sharing some critical if not box office success. Bel Ami won’t be the film that proves Pattinson to be a box office draw in his own right, but it does solidify his ability to transition between genres, and his upcoming work with David Cronenberg on Cosmopolis will undoubtedly push this over the edge. While his role is largely a mixture of brooding and seducing, Pattinson is the consummate nineteenth century rogue, and perhaps the perfect choice for Georges.
Like the Paris depicted, the women are far more important than the men, and the trio of Ricci, Thurman and Scott Thomas are a force to be reckoned with. Ricci in particular, who has been struggling to find a ‘great role’ since Black Snake Moan (2006), makes a welcome return to our screens, the perfect combination of flirty ingénue and nymphette. The similarly adrift Thurman, until recently lost in a sea of Motherhood’s (2006) and My Super Ex-Girlfriend’s (2009), may occasionally come off as stilted, but this is in keeping with Madeleine’s precarious place in society. Scott Thomas is on home ground in this Franco-costume drama, but it is refreshing to see her play such a desperately clingy character, starved of affection.
A beautifully shot piece by Italian cinematographer Stefano Falivene, Bel Ami ticks all the right boxes in an adaptation of this kind. Supporting cast Glenister and the ubiquitous Colm Meaney bring a richness to this well-crafted world. Donnellan and Ormerod never reveal their stage origins in the execution, and nor does screenwriter Rachel Bennette, who reduces the complexities of Guy de Maupassant to an accessible tale of winners who take all without consequence.
Bel Ami is released in Australia on 24 May 2012 from Hopscotch. It will also received a limited release in US cinemas on 8 June 2012.