Bel Ami *** (out of five)
The source material is excellent stuff. Titled Bel Ami, or, The History of a Scoundrel when first published in England in 1903, it’s a thrilling page-turner; the story of a somewhat poor but desperately ambitious clerk living in Paris who essentially sleeps his way to the top of society, it’s got everything: lashings of sex, intrigue, a glamourous milieu, politics, power and corruption, high stakes, and, in Georges Duroy, an irresistibly irredeemable cad of the highest – and by that I mean absolute lowest – order. You can imagine that a young Robert Downey Jr., Heath Ledger or Rupert Everett would have had a field day with the part; Daniel Radcliffe, I reckon, has the chops to have made it sing.
Pity, then, that the responsibility falls to Robert Pattinson, who is astoundingly not up to the task. To my mind, Pattinson, who I have only seen before in Remember Me (I have not seen any of the Twilight franchise) is many moons away from having the skills to carry a film. He misjudges everything. When required to be pleased, he smiles like someone who has been told they’ve won the lottery; when required to be disturbed, he pouts and sulks petulantly; when required to seduce a woman – the central requirement of this role – he leers at them with what almost seems like sneering contempt. Every woman in this film is meant to find Georges irresistible, but that’s hard to believe when he’s always making such ugly faces.
The nature of this material – indeed the “history of a scoundrel” – requires a strong focus on the lead character, and co-directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod dutifully shoot lots and lots of close-ups of Pattinson, which only compound the problem, as he’s especially unbelievable in close-up. The whole situation isn’t helped either by Pattinson being surrounded by excellent actors who are all in fine form: Uma Thurman (particularly), Kristin Scott Thomas, Colm Meaney, Christina Ricci and Philip Glenister all give intricate, strong performances that are ripe enough for the soapy material. It’s just such a pity they have to share all their scenes with an actor who simply isn’t in their league.
I loved watching the terrific plot unfold; the production design and music are exemplary, and it’s simply a fascinating world to live in for just shy of two hours. Pity that the name that almost certainly got the movie green-lit is the name that shouldn’t be above the title.