Frances O'Connor (Mansfield Park) plays literature's most famous adulteress in this sensuous adaptation of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. The scandalous classic that was tried for obscenity in French court in 1857 also stars Greg Wise (Sense and Sensibility) as Emma Bovary's virile lover Rodolphe. Hugh Bonneville (Mansfield Park) plays Emma's oblivious but devoted husband, Charles.
Set in rural Normandy in the 1830s and '40s, the story follows Emma's dreamy and ultimately disastrous quest for the ecstatic experiences she finds in books. Reality in the provinces can't possibly live up to her illusions, so she falls prey to seducers and swindlers.
Flaubert's biting satire of middle-class vulgarity got him in almost as much trouble as his heroine's sex life. He argued at his obscenity trial that his intention was "the incitement to virtue through horror of vice" and he was acquitted.
In the story, Emma is the beautiful, well-educated daughter of Monsieur Rouault, a prosperous farmer. Rouault breaks a leg and is treated by the new doctor in the village, Charles Bovary.
Charmed by Emma, Charles pays more visits than usual to his patient. Before Emma realizes it, Charles has asked for her hand and she has assented, although she is not in love.
Charles, however, is deeply in love and does everything he can to please his new bride, including pulling up stakes and moving to a new village when her lapse into depression seems to require a change.
At Yonville, she meets a romantic young clerk, Léon, who shares her soulful yearnings. Before their flame of passion can kindle he is off to Paris.
Rodolphe is the man who gets the fire going. A dashing country gentleman straight out of a storybook, he ignites Emma's desire and then satisfies it over and over, until she decides to elope with him. But then he, too, does a disappearing act.
Charles unwittingly abets Emma's secret life by taking her to the opera in the provincial capital of Rouen, where she meets Léon by chance. He arranges a rendezvous at the cathedral, from whence they take a passionate ride in a closed carriage. Thereafter, they have weekly assignations under the guise of "piano lessons."
Meanwhile, Emma has been spending the household into bankruptcy thanks to the usurious draper L'heureux. It is only a matter of time before her fairy tale turns into a nightmare.
Madame Bovary was filmed in the Norman countryside that Flaubert depicts so vividly in his novel. "We found one of the little towns that he certainly used as a study for his scenes of village life," says producer Tony Redston.
"We also shot in Rouen, so that Emma and Léon meet in the Rouen cathedral just as they do in the book and then have their celebrated cab ride through the same streets."
Redston notes that the costumes reflect provincial fashions of the day, as well as the Parisian mode that Emma aspired to. "And we follow Flaubert's color symbolism," he adds. "You will see that blue and yellow are very significant colors for Emma," he hints.
Masterpiece is sponsored by: