Written three years after he won the Nobel Prize and some 18 after the work that would define his career (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Marquez' 1985 novel is a rambling, seemingly single-minded meditation on miraculous, impossible love. On the evening of her husband's funeral, tottering old Fermina Daza returns home to find a tottering old Florentino Ariza, who professes his love after some 50 years. The widow Daza throws him out and the story begins, transporting the reader back a half century to their first meeting, where Florentino would stumble upon a crush that would become the obsession of a lifetime.
Seeing Fermina for the first time quite unexpectedly while delivering a telegram, Florentino -- who has a way with words -- first woos the young heiress with letter after letter of meditations upon the nature of his love for her. Initially, the epistolary romance leads her to accept an invitation of marriage. After her violent father, though, who has higher plans for his daughter's betrothal, orders her into the country and away from temptation, the lovers continue to communicate via the magic-seeming telegraph machines that have recently begun crisscrossing the nation.
Upon her return from exile, Fermina experiences a quick, decisive change of heart. This love affair has been a child's game, she realizes, leaving Florentino -- still very much in love -- to pine after her for the better part of five decades, through civil war, the pestilence of cholera (which has symptoms similar to his love pangs), the ravages of age and the momentary respites of those 622 different lovers. Though he makes a few furtive attempts to forget her, by this point, Florentino's doomed.
Garcia Marquez's book sprawls that story out over 500-odd pages of unhurried text. This adaptation by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco) doesn't have the kind of time needed to really imbue the story with a sense of singular place and pervasive magic, but it hits a lot of the high points. It also shifts the narrative locus from Fermina as object-of-desire (the way Marquez had it) to something more centered on Florentino's clumsy devotion.
Shooting decadently but enthusiastically, Newell dotes on Javier Bardem's Florentino, keeping tight to his face as the Spaniard gives the character a sense of vacant determination. It's a good way to scale down a narrative this huge, but as Newell focuses on the man and his missteps through life, he misses most of the delicate context of Garcia Marquez's novel. The film, then, can't be as deeply metaphoric and evocative as the book, which turns the affair of longing into a symbol for the turbulence of the world around it. Newell's film is, though, something simple, absurd and heartfelt. In its own imperfect way, it's magic. (Rated R)