Love in the Time of Cholera, 15
Lars and the Real Girl, 12A

A modern classic brought to screen is suffocated under snowy wigs

When it takes more than 20 years for a novel as beloved as Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera to be made into a film, it's probably because the book does lots of things that cinema can't do as nimbly, such as roving from comedy to tragedy, from character to character, and from place to place over a span of several decades.

For a film to have any hope of matching it, it would need a director such as Baz Luhrmann or Jean-Pierre Jeunet, someone known for extravagant visual flourishes and dizzying edits. It would also some need top-quality wigs and make-up, so that the actors can age convincingly by half a century. Love in the Time of Cholera doesn't have either.

Mike Newell, the director, and Ronald Harwood, the screenwriter, have taken a literal-minded approach to their adaptation, dramatising many of the book's key scenes without tapping into its spirit.

The central character is Florentino, played as a teenager by Unax Ugalde, and for the rest of his life by Javier Bardem. In a burgeoning Colombian port in the late 1800s, Florentino falls hopelessly in love with a rich merchant's daughter, Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), even though she seems to be the most wan and sullen woman in the region.

At first, Fermina returns his love, but a shuffling telegraph boy isn't going to impress her father (John Leguizamo), who growls and snarls as if he's halfway through transforming into a werewolf. He takes his daughter away from the city, and she, for reasons not completely explained, elbows Florentino and marries a philanthropic doctor, played by Benjamin Bratt. However, Florentino never stops loving her, even as the decades pass and the actors are buried under white wigs and painted-on wrinkles.

While the book is set in an unnamed city, the film announces with a caption upfront that we're in "Cartagena, Colombia".

It's a bad sign. Whereas the novel was free-floating and mythic, Newell and Harwood bring it down to Earth with a bump. They've made a pleasant, amusing, romantic period romp, but compared to Marquez's prose, it's prosaic.

In Lars and the Real Girl, an office worker (Ryan Gosling) is so shy that he lives by himself in his brother's garage, and runs for cover whenever his sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) tries to invite him over for dinner. Nonetheless, his relatives are devoted to him, so they're delighted when he tells them that he has a new girlfriend.

They're less pleased when he comes to the door with a blow-up doll, and announces that she's a missionary named Bianca. Lars claims that she's a wheelchair user, which is why she's not very mobile. He asks his brother if Bianca can sleep in the spare bedroom: she's too religious to stay in the same room as Lars. Neither his brother nor his sister-in-law tell him not to be so stupid, but they do take him to a psychologist, Patricia Clarkson, who believes that Lars's delusion is his subconscious means of breaking out of his shell and reconnecting with people. She advises that everyone who meets Bianca should treat her as a real girl.

The premise makes it sound like a Farrelly Brothers comedy starring Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell, but Lars and the Real Girl is a soft-spoken indie comedy-drama with a snowy setting and a warm heart. It's asking a lot of the audience to believe that the entire town would play along with Lars without a single lewd remark, and it's asking even more to believe that those people might come to view an inflatable lump of plastic as "a teacher" and "a lesson". But the cast – Mortimer, especially – is sincere enough to sell it as a sweet, compassionate fairytale about the most tolerant community on earth.

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