A challenge for any actor lies in portraying a shallow person without delivering a shallow performance. Such a challenge completely defeats the “Twilight Saga” heartthrob, British actor Robert Pattinson, in the latest film adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s novel “Bel Ami.”
Playing a penniless, cynical ex-soldier in 1890s Paris who climbs the socio-economic ladder via sexual conquests of well-connected society wives, Pattinson suggests neither sexual charisma nor cunning intelligence but rather a blank sort of ennui. It’s really hard to imagine why all these sophisticated beautiful women get so erotically charged at the mere sight of him.
His is not the only miscasting in “Bel Ami,” but you can easily understand why the filmmakers were so eager to cast good judgment aside. Such a well-upholstered costume drama, especially one so oft-filmed in the past, is never likely to get more than marginal art-house play unless an actor popular with teenage girls gets cast in the lead. My view is this won’t make that much difference since the movie and the actor are both stiffs. Then again you never know how his fan base will react.
“Bel Ami” is one of those affairs where Budapest, Hungary, substitutes for 1890s Paris and English for French.
What pleasures the film affords come on the distaff side. Uma Thurman plays a woman of fiery political passion and sexual confidence, who is an early supporter of Pattinson’s anti-hero and sponsors his job as a writer with a newspaper where her husband is the editor. She even writes his first article herself. Thurman finds a few moments to turn her character into a complex and complicated woman who knows how to maneuver in a man’s world very well.
Then there’s Christina Ricci, who realizes this lad has only one commodity to sell so why not take advantage of her husband’s frequent absences from the capital? Ricci plays this very sexy and carefree for the most part, creating a captivating character with a delightful amorality.
On the other hand, that excellent actress Kristen Scott Thomas is totally wrong for the wallflower wife who is seduced and abandoned by a cad many years her junior. It’s a role that ill-suits an actress known for playing worldly women of strong intelligence.
The male actors fare not as well with Colm Meaney and Philip Glenister mostly huffing and puffing as the newspaper’s top editors.
Perhaps too many people were cinema rookies on this one. The directing team of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod are long-time theater directors while this is the first screenplay by Rachel Bennette.
Oh well, the production and costume design and wide-screen cinematography in suitably dressed locales which do carry the flavor of Gay Paree of that era are sumptuous to behold.
Opened: June 8 (Magnolia)
Production companies: Magnolia Pictures and Red Wave Productions in association with XIX Films, Protagonist Pictures and RAI Cinema
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Kristen Scott Thomas, Christina Ricci, Colm Meaney, Philip Glenister, Holliday Grainger
Director: Declan Donnellan, Nick Ormerod
Screenwriter: Rachel Bennette
Based on a story by; Guy de Maupassant
Producer: Uberto Pasolini
Executive producer: Simon Fuller
Director of photography: Stefano Falieven
Production designer: Attila F. Kovács
Music: Lakshman Joseph de Saram, Rachel Portman
Costume designer: Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Editor: Mashahiro Hirakubo
R rating, 102 minutes