Bold Bernstein drama proves Bradley’s a real virtuoso: BRIAN VINER reviews Maestro
Can a nose on a face, however large, ever deserve the metaphor ‘the elephant in the room’?
That was a nagging question at the Venice Film Festival on Saturday night, at the world premiere of Maestro – the biopic of mighty conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, co-written, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper.
There has been so much fuss about the prosthetics used by (the non-Jewish) Cooper to replicate the Bernstein proboscis that even those in the audience determined to judge this Netflix film on its merits could hardly have been unaware of the brouhaha, and must have swiftly reached their own conclusion.
Mine, for what it’s worth (and with a Jewish heritage of my own), is that the enhanced schnozzle is entirely inoffensive. In some shots it helps make Cooper look startlingly like Bernstein, which is never a bad thing in a biopic.
Moreover, the great man’s own children have declared themselves happy with Cooper’s transformation.
That should be good enough for all of us, although the debate is certain to be re-ignited later this year when we see yet more prosthetic work in another biographical film, Golda, making (the non-Jewish) Helen Mirren look like the 1970s Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.
Noses aside, Maestro is a highly intelligent, tremendously engaging drama focusing on the complex relationship between Bernstein and his wife, the actress Felicia Montealegre (beautifully played by Carey Mulligan).
Many of its complexities derive from Bernstein’s bisexuality. When we first meet him in the 1940s he has a male lover, yet his and Felicia’s courtship is heartfelt.
There is a slight tell-tale pause when his sister (Sarah Silverman) finds out that the pair are romantically entwined, but the film deliberately fudges the question of whether Felicia knows her husband-to-be also sleeps with men, and exactly when she finds out.
But by the time we skip forward to the 60s and 70s (moving from monochrome to colour), it has become a burning issue.
There is a moving scene in which Bernstein reassures their daughter Jamie that there is no truth in the rumours she’s heard, and a furious row between husband and wife in their apartment that has a darkly hilarious counterpoint, as a giant inflatable Snoopy passes the window in the Macy’s street parade.
All this is so well-written by Cooper and his co-writer Josh Singer (an Academy Award-winner for 2015’s Spotlight), and so well acted by the two leads, that there are moments when it feels almost impertinent to be watching. But their marital difficulties are underpinned by mutual devotion and the importance to them both of their children, which very movingly becomes clear when Felicia is diagnosed with cancer.
It was bold of Cooper to let Bernstein’s thrilling musical talent play second fiddle to all this. But the film still chronicles his dazzling career, starting with his big break when, at 25, he has to take over from the guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Bruno Walter, who has fallen ill.
We also learn something of the different directions in which he is tugged, between his genius for composing stage musicals (above all, the incomparable West Side Story) and his equal facility with classical music. Not long before he died, I was privileged to see Bernstein conduct. It was an unforgettable spectacle, watching an elderly man walk arthritically to the podium, slowly pick up the baton, and shed decades. It was as if he was holding a wizard’s wand the wrong way round, with all its magic animating him.
Cooper’s virtuoso achievement in this film, only the second he has directed after 2018’s excellent A Star Is Born, is to convey the thunderous charisma that seemed to make everyone in Bernstein’s orbit dance to his tune.
Maestro opens in cinemas in November, and on Netflix on December 20.