Review: “Bel Ami”

An oddly empty take on Guy de Maupassant classic novel, stage directors turned filmmakers Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s version of “Bel Ami” is a handsome but dramatically inert affair which never finds its focus. Far too loyal to the wording of the book rather than the spirit, what you end up with is a character piece paradoxically driven entirely by plot. Each of the players are thinly drawn and often forced by the compressed story into awkward scenarios that either aren’t justified or notably lacking any of the novel’s nuance.

To their credit Donnellan and Ormerod get the production values right. Looking more lavish than its fairly tight budget would let on, the film convincingly recreates Belle Epoque-era Paris with gorgeous costumes and strong art direction. The cinematography and music aren’t on the same level but are serviceable enough. Pacing is messy, the 102 minute runtime is far too brief for a tale of this size but the film itself seems to drag on for much longer.

Comparisons have been made to “Dangerous Liaisons” due to the mix of period European upper class with sexual politics, even though the film adaptations couldn’t be any more different in their tone. The characters of ‘Liaisons’ were distinct and ruled by an emotional and sexual inner fire barely contained by the corsets and corsages. Here however, the characters are ice – relatively interchangeable anonymous beings who seem to lack any real passion whatsoever.

The problems come down to both the script and direction as some stellar actors are utterly wasted. Philip Glenister and Colm Meaney are forced into tedious supporting roles and straight jacketed into pouring out exposition. It’s galling in particular to see the wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas treated in such a manner.

While it’s not at Poison Ivy-levels, Uma Thurman can’t help but dial up her high-class vamp routine a few degrees further than she should. Even so she comes out of this ok, as does Christina Ricci whose Clotilde is the only one of the women of the story whose subplot seems to have made the transition to screen without being entirely gutted (thus making her the most interesting character).

Full kudos to him for pursuing more serious actor roles, but Robert Pattinson makes the mistake of many young actors in trying too hard in the places where a more subtle approach is required. Scoundrel characters are difficult to play because they are, in many ways, like sociopaths. A charismatic, amiable and highly adaptable surface floating over a ruthless, calculating and single-minded personality underneath.

Pattinson however spends much of the movie sporting a visible sneer of distaste – never convincing in his ability to seduce and manipulate. His ultimate motivation of doing whatever he can to avoid the poor house seems tacked on, while it’s never explained how such an ‘id’-dominated individual so driven entirely by instincts could survive, let alone engage in complex mind games, in Parisian high society. A less self-conscious approach on the actor’s part would’ve helped greatly, but when even a supporting cast of award winners struggle with their under-served characters – it’s no surprise the highlight of Pattinson’s work here is his ass flexing and thrusting.

There’s an interesting story at the heart of “Bel Ami” but it never gets the chance to escape. Some attempts are made at bringing in political elements such as control of media and war in North Africa, but they are merely underserved distractions in an already over-laden narrative. Tackling the work with a deadly self-serious approach was a mistake as the filmmakers simply don’t have the necessary experience, smarts or skill to pull off such an ambitious endeavour.

A more manageable, engaging and melodramatic take would’ve likely delivered better results even if it takes away from the veneer of ‘respectability’. Too stolid by half, “Bel Ami” is a sadly dull affair despite the pretty veneer – the film is far too concerned with its ‘costume’ and not nearly enough with its ‘drama’.