Monday 5 March 2012

Team bedward: "Bel Ami"

Team Edward - already in adolescence at the time of the first Twilight movie four years ago - is growing up, so Bel Ami, an adaptation of the Guy de Maupassant novel, provides its star Robert Pattinson with both a crossover role and the kind of cautionary tale any hot young actor might do well to heed. As Georges Duroy, an ingrate gadabout spunking everything he's got in 1890s Paris, R-Pattz gets to do a lot of wolfish leering at (and, in certain cases, full-on buttock-thrusting with) three women who come to mark his ascent and descent of the social ladder: Uma Thurman, as the wife of the tubercular newspaper editor (Robert Glenister) who's appointed Duroy head of gossip; Kristin Scott Thomas, as a devout society matron; and, last but by no means least, Christina Ricci, as a young mother who takes an altogether practical approach to infidelity, and may be the protagonist's best hope.

To address one burning issue, Pattinson is perfectly fine, as he almost always has been, and certainly more exercised than in his signature Cullen role, where he was asked to project nothing more threatening to his core audience than eternally patient virtue. Here, he gives a precise, intelligent reading of a young man who, for all his ironic amusement at his own handsomeness (and the possibilities it affords him), remains witless and rather crude, curling up under the covers with Ricci to sneer at the letters his peasant father has written to inform him his pigs have contracted diarrhoea. Directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, of the Cheek by Jowl theatre company, surround their lead with stiff-collar pageantry: so it is that Duroy redecorates his sparse lodgings with Chinese lanterns, Thurman is asked to turn fancy pirouettes as she exits a room, and Glenister gets a protracted death scene to heighten the sense of moral and physical decay on screen.

The problem lies squarely with screenwriter Rachel Bennette's handling of the material, which though still relevant, in theory - the hero is undone by all-consuming appetite - depends on inexplicable archaisms to proceed; it's a rare example of an adaptation that might have been improved by bringing the action forward to the present-day. This script never convinces on the motivation, whether honourable or avaricious, underpinning two pivotal marriages, so whatever's at stake in this rake's progress becomes indistinct, leading to an ending so confused one honestly doesn't know what to think. Put bluntly, at a crucial juncture, the dude picks the wrong woman: Thurman's strangulated line readings render her easily the weakest performer in this line-up, so there doesn't seem much earthly reason for Duroy to be pursuing her. Of the others, Scott Thomas has a loose handful of funny moments as her desperate housewife realises she's actually turned on by her young lover's heavy-handedness, but otherwise she's coasting, understandably, through the script's flimsiest role; that said, Ricci, making a sort-of comeback from direct-to-DVD limbo, is back to something like her usual fun self, and her scenes with the leading man provide Bel Ami's moments of genuine spark.

One of the reasons the upbeat ending is so confounding is that, everywhere else, the narrative is observed working overtime to point out how anything impulsive is A Very Bad Thing Indeed. At almost every other point, Duroy is punished for not following appropriate etiquette: embarrassed after taking a fishknife to his starter, he's then bawled out for expressing dissent to Colm Meaney's newspaper baron, and cast out of church for trying to grope Scott Thomas in the pews. For all the film's saleable surface libertinism, it remains conservative to its core, which is possibly what happens when a British costume pic tries to make a French writer conform to its narrow worldview. You wish Donnellan and Ormerod had tried with their debut to impress upon us something more edifying than that hoary, lazy notion: that you can take the boy out of the pigshit, but not the pigshit out of the boy.

Bel Ami opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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