A version of this review appeared in The Age, May 24, 2012.
Since he came to fame as the star of the Twilight series, Robert Pattinson has been impressively adventurous in his choice of roles. Too bad he's yet to show the talent to match. The cinematic debut for theatre directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, this period romance is based on an 1885 novel by Guy de Maupassant, previously filmed in 1949 with George Sanders – the opposite in every way of Pattinson, who here takes on the role of the cynical Georges Duroy, a young former soldier who returns from Algeria and sets out to conquer the Paris of the Belle Epoque.
Sneering, smirking and cocking his head, Pattinson remains a flamboyantly terrible actor, totally unable to relax on camera. In fairness, Georges is meant to be gauche and easily humiliated, qualities Pattinson conveys with ease. But whenever his brooding, Byronic side supposedly comes to the fore, the film falls apart.
The women provide compensations. Christina Ricci is persuasively sly yet tender as Georges' mistress Clotilde, her distinctive wide-eyed beauty seen to best advantage in a period frame. Uma Thurman proves again she can be an exciting actress on a good day, though her nervous, flighty mannerisms don't entirely suit the character of Madeleine Forestier, who becomes Georges' political mentor. Kristin Scott-Thomas has the most thankless role of all as Madame Walter, a poised matron reduced to a helpless kitten once Georges decides to seduce her. But she rises to the occasion with style, treating her character's humiliation as the basis for an assured comic turn.