Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman in laughably bad 'Bel Ami'

Despair is written all over Robert Pattinson's face as Bel Ami begins. With a worried stubble of beard, with beads of sweat and eyes a-poppin', the Twilight Saga heartthrob is clearly distressed.

But is he distressed because his character, Georges Duroy, has only a sou or two to his name and feels the need to spend it on a brothel whore? Or is it because Pattinson knows he's signed on for a turkey?

Judging by the misguided aplomb with which he throws himself into this laughably bad adaptation of a Guy de Maupassant novel - a novel about a shallow hustler who seduces his way to the top of Paris society in the 1890s - I'd guess the answer is he's acting.

Pattinson's Duroy arrives in Paris, a soldier with no prospects, and stumbles into the thriving and powerful world of newspapering. He has no talent as a reporter nor as a writer, but that doesn't stop Madeleine Forestier (Uma Thurman), the free-thinking wife of a top La Vie Francaise editor, from getting Georges a job there.

Her interest, at least at the outset, is purely professional - but there are plenty of other socialites who find themselves falling for Georges. His career goes arc-ing upward as he spends more time with the wives of the French capital's movers and shakers.

Among them: Virginie Walters (Kristin Scott Thomas), married to the Rupert Murdoch of late 19th-century Paris (Colm Meaney), and so desperate for Georges' attentions that she relays War Department secrets to get him into bed. And then there's the saucer-eyed sexpot Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci), who fixes up a pied-a-terre where she and Georges tryst. Whatever emotional cruelty he inflicts on Clotilde, she always comes back for more.

Never mind the murky period-piece settings, or the continuity lapses, or the risible dialogue (Uma's Madeleine to her pretty-boy protege: "I had no conception of the depths of your emptiness!"). It's the total lack of empathy these characters elicit (or don't) that is Bel Ami's overarching problem.

They are wealthy (or aspire to wealth), they are ambitious, they are beautiful, and they are a dreadful bore.

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Bel Ami

Directed by Nick Ormerod, Declan Donnellan. With James Lance, Kristin Scott Thomas, Uma Thurman, Robert Pattinson, Natalia Tena, Holliday Grainger, Philip Glenister, Pip Torrens, Colm Meaney, Christina Ricci. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 42 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for some strong sexuality, nudity and brief language).