19th Century Colombia. Florentino (Bardem) is love struck when he claps his eyes on Fermina (Mezzogiomo), the daughter of an aristocratic mule merchant (Leguiziamo). After Fermina rejects him, Florentino refuses to abandon his passion but dulls the pain by bedding hundreds of women.
Having previously tackled the 636-page doorstop that is Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire, Mike Newell takes on the slimmer (348 pages) but narratively and thematically more complex challenge of translating Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1987 novel to the screen. An unrequited love story spanning five decades, while also documenting South American social upheaval as the 19th Century becomes the 20th, Marquez’s novel is imbued with delicate fantasy, political substance and a unique tragicomic tone. Newell’s ambitious adaptation is that forlorn creature, an Awards-bait film that just doesn’t make the grade, leaving a handsome, well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing trailer for a great book.
The film’s major asset is Bardem. Starting the movie much younger than his actual age, he conveys a wide-eyed spirit and innocence as he pines after his unresponsive love. As he ages, he isn’t helped by some of the worst character make-up in recent years, at one point resembling a turtle with a facelift, but it speaks volumes for his performance that he can still invest the character with dignity. Elsewhere, the cast can’t match Bardem’s brilliance: Mezzogiomo’s Fermina looks great but lacks the charisma to make you understand Florentino’s obsession; Bratt is a one note philandering husband (a scene where he gives his new wife a lesson in love is laughable) and John Leguiziamo makes Brian Blessed look restrained as Fermina’s class-climbing father.
Yet Cholera is choked by its broad tone. Unable to be with the love of his life, Florentino launches himself into an endless procession of erotic escapades - but the sex scenes are played as comedic fumblings rather than a man inuring himself from personal loss. Newell embroiders the tale with colour and enjoyable production value but can’t quite manage the delicacy of touch, telling detail or depth of passion to make Florentino’s obsession completely engaging.
Ultimately the scope of the story is too huge to give it anything more than a perfunctory retelling. What’s left is a greatest hits package - Now That’s What I Call Gabriel Garcia Marquez - that ticks off all the major scenes but leaves out the affecting connective tissue. By the time the couple meet again after some 50 years (in more frighteningly bad ageing make-up), you really should care more than you do.
A valiant attempt to turn a complex novel into a compelling movie is hamstrung by a conventional literary sensibility, an uneven tone and, crucially, a failure to establish a moving, meaningful connection between its two major players.