For those who found the Gabriel García Márquez novel Love in the Time of Cholera sublime — and I know a fabulous few who did; it is yet unread by me — skip the adaptation, for the film is, alas, merely the work of a craftsperson, devoid of the artistic ecstasy its origins promise. Someone do us a favor and stop assigning director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) to beloved book adaptations.
The most affecting scene in this film surely derives its goodness from Márquez’ text: It is a stretch of description in the form of voiceover narration — about waiting for love at a lighthouse — that screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist, The Diving Bell and Butterfly) certainly salvaged from the novel. He constructs the majority of the rest of the film from small, underdeveloped, unrelated vignettes whose endings drop so cleanly and casually that one can’t possibly muster care for the characters featured within them.
I loved Four Weddings and a Funeral, but have since found my hopes for Newell squashed repeatedly. He’s like a hasty lover with no concern for getting us in the mood. Where the written word can offer vast, lush, sensual phrases to ratchet up our empathy, film can linger on lush and sensual imagery (see Wong Kar-Wai) — of which I’m convinced Cartagena, Colombia, where Cholera takes place, is amassed of. Newell settles for breasts, breasts, and breasts.
His inaptitude for pacing ruins the effect of one particular vignette, which has to do with the main character, obsessive lover Florentino Ariza, proverbially planting his flag over a woman’s vagina; the action wreaks murderous consequences. (For the record, I don’t think it’s ever been a good idea to claim ownership of the Winking Eye of God, as they say. You saw Unfaithful.) The whole ordeal happens at such a speed — an unbelievable speed, when it comes to the “gotcha” moment — that there’s no grief to be had, and there should be.
At least Javier Bardem is incredibly charismatic as Florentino, who, as a young telegram boy, falls in love at first sight with Fermina
Urbino (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), the daughter of an eccentric mule breeder played (over-the-top) by John Leguizamo. Newell doesn’t really bestow special treatment on the event of their meeting, so we, like most of the adults in the film, have a difficult time initially understanding that their love is more than an illusion. When Fermina’s father moves her away, Florentino resolves that his destiny is to be with Fermina; he will wait forever if he must. In the meantime (about 50 years pass), he keeps an inventory of sexual partners (but not, curiously, contracted infections).
Composer Antonio Pinto does his best to summon Gustavo Santaolalla (Amores Perros, Babel) but his spindly tunes are incorporated unevenly; they’re alienating and incohesive when they actually do crop up.
In a film where old-timey violence, disease, and cockfighting are rendered old-timey “violence,” “disease,” and “cockfighting” by virtue of their appearance, there are still several —
however fleeting — indisputably lovely visuals, some dingy, some obscured by shadow (a word used to describe Florentino). My favorite image was shot through the bottom of a typewriter in use, so Bardem’s visage was littered with round, black keys. The romantic, and, I surmise, mystical nature of the tale called for more inventive, magical shots like these, but The Queen’s cinematographer Affonso Beato either couldn’t imagine them or they were left on the cutting-room floor.
I’m a believer in the “you’re only as strong as your weakest link” concept, and it pains me that the prodigious life-spanning performances — and excellent makeup work that makes them plausible — are paired with anything less than outstanding, especially Newell’s overall by-the-numbers, slapdash treatment. Maybe he’ll have better success in his next rumored venture, an adaptation of the beloved video game Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Regardless, hands off the literature, buddy. •