Love in the Time of Cholera – out now

Love in the Time of Cholera is based on the sumptuous, florid novel by Nobel Prize winning Columbian author Gabriel García Márquez. The film adaptation by Mike Newell, who is best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, just goes to show that the best novels rarely work well on the big screen.

The setting is the small Columbian town of Cartanega around the year 1900. The young clerk Florentino (played by Unax Ugalde as a teenager and Javier Bardem as an adult) catches a glimpse of wealthy beauty Fermina Daza (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) through an open window as he is going about on an errand. A poet of sorts, Florentino eventually wins Fermina’s heart by writing letters to her and the two embark on a breathless courtship (complete with Romeo and Juliet balcony scene).

But when her nouveau-riche father Lorenzo (John Leguizamo) hears of the match, he packs his daughter off to central Columbia, out of harm’s way. Young love cannot survive forever at such a distance, and Fermina eventually marries the hansome Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), a physician who has made a name for himself battling a devastating outbreak of cholera. Distraught, Florentino turns to work, then to women (over 600 of them) for consolation, describing each sexual encounter in his diary. His heart, however, remains with Fermina and when her husband dies in a freak accident after 51 years, the two are able to consummate the love of their youth. Cholera becomes a metaphor for indiscriminate power of love – like the disease, it spares some but consumes others.

Unfortunately the lush scenery and clever cinematography – the vibrant, latin colours almost dance off the screen at you – do little to make up for the film’s many failings. The acting is wooden and you never feel a connection between the two main characters. In the novel Florentino has our sympathy, but here he comes across as a lecherous, self-pitying hypocrite. He is too awkward to convince us that hundreds of women could throw themselves so willingly into his arms. Fermina may be beautiful (even at 70!) but she lacks the charisma that would leave someone infatuated. The Spanish accents only serve to accentuate the stilted script, especially when Dr Urbino throws out lines like “This will be a lesson in love!” on his wedding night.

One of the problems is that Marquez’ novels do not contain much dialogue, instead relying on narrative prose to communicate the subtle interplay of eroticism, history and magic. Screenwriter Ronald Harwood fails to translate the rich imagery of the novel into dialogue for the big screen, and the film seems at best to be an elegant trailer for a much better novel.

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