All narrative art forms are not created equal, or: I'm not sure there was ever a chance that Love in the Time of Cholera was going to be made into a good movie. At least, not without fundamentally altering the source material such that what was left over would hardly count as the same material.

Full disclosure: I haven't actually read Gabriel García Márquez's novel, but I'm familiar with a few of his other works, and I can tell you that at no point in reading them - and loving them all, mind - did I think, "this would make a dynamite movie." Based on the evidence of this film, I suspect I'd have come to same conclusion about this one: it's the sort of fable-esque magical realism (if ever there was a writer for whom that phrase was invented, it was García Márquez) that is perfect and enchanting, and that is totally broken when you put it in front of a camera.

I don't mean to make some tiresome "movies are realistic" argument. I mean that García Márquez's mode of storytelling, something movies are terribly ill-suited for. The old cliché is "show, don't tell," but it's really quite hard to make a movie that actually falls afoul of that. Movies are a visual medium and therefore they must show us a story: even if it's two people relating a plot in heavy-handed dialogue, it's still "showing" us those people. Whereas a novel takes place as a story communicated through words on paper, and a great tale-teller, which certainly describes García Márquez, uses the physical fact of a book open in front of us as a part of the experience. The engagement required for watching a movie (looking at images on a flat screen) is different from the engagement required for reading a book (hearing words inside our head), and the former is experiential while the latter is descriptive - there is a layer of paper and binding and ink separating us from the story, making it feel more like reportage, for want of a better word, and it is this distance that makes magical realism possible in the first place.

But y'know, maybe the book is nothing like that, and I'm just a jackass.

Anyway, the movie tells a story that in its given form shouldn't necessarily be filmed, but that isn't always a stumbling-block; there are filmmakers whose entire career is based on making anti-cinematic cinema. Unfortunately, Love in the Time of Cholera wasn't directed by any of them. Instead, it has been helmed by Mike Newell, a director whose entire career is full of conspicuously impersonal projects, and while that served him well on a pre-ordained project like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (where his entire contribution seemingly consisted of pointing the cinematographer towards German Expressionism), this film demanded a director with a firm hand and a strong idea for how to capture the tone of García Márquez's prose in visual form. Instead, it's the barbarically literal sort of work that presumes that if you just set the camera up and have the actors recite dialogue in front of it, magic will happen.

Which, to be fair, almost might have worked, given the glowing work of leading man Javier Bardem, who follows up his showstopping work in No Country for Old Men with a performance that is significantly better than the script ought to have permitted, not to mention rising above some very convincing old age makeup and some very laughable youth-ing makeup. Bardem plays Florentino, who promises at a young age to remain eternally truthful to the beautiful Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), who repays him by marrying, without love, the handsome stick Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt). As the years roll by, Florentino finds that the only way to keep his heart from breaking is to constantly distract himself with a series of sexual encounters, which he meticulously tracks in a notebook.

Bardem's role is at least slightly unplayable (in this film, anyway), a man whose behavior is not really based in anything that isn't arbitrary and beholden to the script's exigencies; but he goes ahead and plays it anyway. Where the script does not make passion clear, Bardem does; and insofar as we believe in his character's sexual escapades, it is only because of the twist in the actor's mouth and the humor in his voice as he discusses them. It's a better performance than the film deserves, although I shudder to think about what it might have been without Bardem.

None of the other players hit that level, although Hector Elizondo as Florentino's uncle Don Leo comes closest and John Leguizamo is furthest, playing Fermina's father Lorenzo sort of like Gollum. Most of the cast, who have all been capable in other things, are simply undone by Newell's indifferent direction and the thin script by Ronald Harwood, whose other current film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, is yet another example of a film based on a book whose bookishness is kind of the point, although it's a masterpiece of writing next to this. I don't hold any animosity towards Harwood; I think he just got a terribly thankless job and did the best he felt like doing.

What else is there to say, really? It's a completely flat film that treats a love that will never die without an ounce of passion. It's very pretty and very prestigious and it has no heart. García Márquez deserves better than this sort of rote sausage-making, but when all is said and done, we'll be able to enjoy the book Love in the Time of Cholera for many years into the future, which is something that I can't imagine many people ever wanting to do with the film.