The overriding theme of Love in the Time of Cholera, the new film from 4 Weddings and a Funeral director Mike Newell, is that true love never dies. Nice sentiment to be sure, but unfortunately for viewers of this sprawling adaptation of the wildly popular novel by Nobel Prize Winner , my love for the film died about an hour before the movie ended.
To keep the running time of the film to 139 minutes Newell and team cut and slashed away at the book’s 50-year timeline, altering storylines somewhat—for example, Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt) dies from a fall rather than natural causes—eliminating characters and generally condensing the novel’s 368 pages into a more cinematic form. Happily the power of love theme hasn’t been lost; unhappily they have chosen to highlight the story’s melodramatic elements, adopting a style more appropriate to a daytime soap than a high minded literary adaptation.
Set in 1878 in the Columbian town of Cartagena during a cholera epidemic, the film is the saga of young Fiorentino’s (Unax Ugalde) love for Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno). They fall deeply in love, but when her domineering father (John Leguziamo) discovers their affair he spirits her away to a small mountain town far from the admiring hands of her young suitor. There she meets and marries the handsome Dr. Urbino (Benjamin Bratt) who provides well for her but occasionally strays outside the boundaries of their marriage.
Over the next few decades the heartbroken Fiorentino (Javier Bardem as the adult character) finds success in business but none in his personal life. He remains a bachelor, but an endless (and well catalogued) string of one-night stands and brief affairs only accentuates the aching love he still feels for Fermina.
When Dr. Urbino unexpectedly dies Fiorentino seizes the chance to rekindle his long dormant love affair with Fermina.
Love in the Time of Cholera has none of the charm of the novel. Although lushly photographed mostly on location in Columbia, the film lurches along from one scene to the next with little regard to pacing or coherent storytelling. At 139 minutes it feels twice as long because of the disjointed way Newell unrolls the story. The film leaps from year to year like a gazelle chasing its prey, the characters age rapidly (with unusually obvious makeup) and several scenes simply don’t belong. A love scene between Bardem and beauty queen Laura Harring as the buxom Sara Noriega seems to only have been included to give Newell the opportunity to show the former Miss USA winner topless.
Bardem, so effective as the psycho killer in No Country for Old Men commits himself fully to the role of the heartsick Fiorentino but is undone by a weak script and an almost total lack of chemistry between him and his paramour co-star Giovanna Mezzogiorno. No sparks fly between the two and it is hard to believe that anyone would spend a lifetime pursuing such a flaccid relationship and since that pairing is at the core of the film, its failure brings the whole enterprise down.
Love in the Time of Cholera is a missed opportunity to turn a literary masterpiece into a masterful—although in this case I’d even settle for good or even bearable—movie.