He’s old, grey and rich at this point (and played with dignity by Javier Bardem, notwithstanding his Chaplin-esque walk, possibly a result of his character’s self-documented 600-odd sexual conquests); but soon we are whisked back from the 1930s to coastal Colombia in 1879 – the younger Unax Ugalde taking the role with the dubious help of a prosthetic nose bridge. As an eager, idealistic mother’s boy, Florentino serenades newly arrived Fermina, only for his hopes to be dashed – for ever it seems – by the obstruction of her nouveau riche father (the habitually OTT John Leguizamo).
Newell’s film is brave in many ways – some may say foolhardy – in that the drama, endlessly drawn out as it is, is subservient to an ethos, almost a remembrance or a dream of a long-buried idea of romantic honour, teased out faithfully in subtle, sweetly accepting and gently ironic scenes by scriptwriter Ronald Harwood.
But one can’t escape the dead weight of the ‘quality’ cinematography of Stephen Frears’ lensman Affonso Beato nor the alienating effect of the cakes of make-up and self-advertising set design that always cloak and enervate period literary adaptations such as this. Bardem’s performance is touching and quietly unexpected but, overall, the film’s appeal is disappointingly narrow: for patient literature buffs with a stomach for candid geriatric sex.