'Cholera' Chills the Detail in Epic Love Story; Able Film Suffers Compared to Garcia Marquez's Novel

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How's he going to pull that off?

This seemed to be the question looming around filmmaker Mike Newell ("Donnie Brasco," "Enchanted April") when it was announced that he would direct an adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's beloved 1985 novel, "Love in the Time of Cholera."

Could a two-hour film possibly do justice to an epic love story spanning both half a century and several hundred pages of ornate detail? Would the Nobel Prize-winning author's subtleties be lost in the planned translation to English, just like the double meaning of the word "cholera" in the book's title has been? (In Spanish, the word means both the disease cholera and rage, and each of these definitions operates within the text.)

The answer to these questions is embedded in the opening scenes of Mr. Newell's adaptation. We see leaves so green that the theater practically hums with the moist, cool breeze of the Colombian coastal city where the film takes place - the Cartagena of the late 1800s and early 1900s. When a pet parrot that's gotten loose bounds into the picture, the tableau looks like something pulled right out of a vibrant Diego Rivera painting.

Dr. Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt, looking quite senior through the magic of makeup) mounts a ladder to collect the offending bird and proceeds to fall to his untimely death.

Garcia Marquez fans will recall that this isn't the death that kick-started the written work - that would be the suicide of 60-year-old Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, a friend of Dr. Urbino's who decided to take his own life (with the help of a secret lover) rather than grow old. The incident slowly warms readers to the book's central themes of love, loss and longing, hidden truths, aging and compromise.

In contrast, the film - written by Ronald Harwood ("The Pianist") with cinematography by Alfonso Beato ("The Queen") - seems less interested in getting viewers in the mood than cutting to the chase. It teems with visual delights, from the picture-perfect scenery to the gorgeous period costumes worn by its handsome cast. Yet it stumbles a bit in matters involving third and fourth dimensions, often reducing things to their simplest essence and effectively glossing over the minute detail and nuance that are Mr. Garcia Marquez's hallmarks.

All of the novel's key events are here. The doctor dies. An aging Florentino Ariza (Javier Bardem in a surprising contrast to his "No Country for Old Men" role) approaches his widow, Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), and professes his undying love for her. …