Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Christina Ricci, Colm Meaney, Phlip Glenister.
A beautiful looking but rather prosaic adaptation of the classic 1885 French novel by Guy de Maupassant, Bel Ami is a powerful tale about sexual intrigue, ambition, scandal and manipulation and a dissolute former soldier who seduces his way through a bevy of beautiful and powerful women. Screenwriter Rachel Bennette (Lark Rise To Candleford, etc) has condensed the story to certain key scenes, turning the material into a melodramatic bodice-tearer and stripping away much of de Maupassant’s shrewd observations on politics and class. Along the way she makes the narrative a little muddled.
Georges Duroy (Twilight hunk Robert Pattinson), is a handsome, smart, charismatic but dissolute former soldier, who arrives in Paris in the late 1880s, the Belle Epoque with the city awash in money and opulence. This is a prosperous time in the city of lights. Through his friendship with former comrade Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister) who works as the political editor at the newspaper La Vie Francaise, Georges is soon offered a job as a journalist. The paper is run by Rousset (Colm Meaney) and has an anti-government leaning. Georges is hired to write about his experiences as a cavalry officer in Algeria, and with the help of Forestier’s wife Madeleine (Uma Thurman) he soon makes a great success of his new career.
The ambitious Georges soon learns how to climb to the top of the corrupt society, populated by sleazy colleagues, wily financiers, and scheming mistresses. After he marries the newly widowed Madeleine he finds himself embroiled in a scheme to usurp the government. Georges also seduces the beautiful but naïve Clothilde (Christina Ricci) and Rousset’s wife Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas). But after he falls out of favour with Rousset, Georges also sets out to seduce the innocent Suzanne Rousset (Holliday Grainger), as revenge against her father.
Bel Ami has been filmed several times before in the past, notably in 1947 with George Sanders in the lead role, and there have been several television mini series. But this is arguably the most sumptuous and visually lush version.
Bel Ami is the first feature film directed by the British pair of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, who come from a background in the theatre. The period detail is excellent, with Anna Lynch-Robinson’s set design and Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s costumes adding authenticity to this depiction of 19th century Paris. Bel Ami has something of the flavour of Dangerous Liaisons about it, although this lacklustre film is not in the same class as Stephen Frears’ gorgeous drama. The film has been lavishly shot by cinematographer Stefano Falivene on location in Budapest, which doubles for 19th century Paris.
Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Christina Ricci are all very good in their roles as the various powerful and influential women seduced by George. However, Pattinson lacks the ruthless edge required to make his illiterate, arrogant and manipulative social climbing Georges convincing. His performance is one-dimensional and lacks the requisite charm and passion. He also fails to develop and real chemistry or rapport with his three costars. And every time he smiles I almost expected to see fangs.
But no amount of star power can completely save this fairly lacklustre adaptation of Bel Ami.