Wednesday 13 January 2010

Film review - Nine

Nine, dir. Rob Marshall, The Weinstein Company, cert. 12A on general release.

Cinema and musical theatre can be uncomfortable bedfellows. Indeed, in the last decade we've endured such catastrophic train wrecks (I'm talking about you, The Producers, Phantom of the Opera, Rent), that one sometimes wonders if it's really worth trying. Beautiful, soaring poetry becomes cheesy twaddle when transferred to the screen, subtle theatre performers become hideous overactors in close-up, and a perfectly paced theatrical script can make for a tedious screenplay. And that's before you get to the seriously screwed-up stuff, like the sound of Pierce Brosnan singing.

Thankfully, Rob Marshall – director of 2003's solid cinematic rendering of Kander and Ebb musical Chicago – has a good feeling for the language of film, and once again proves himself a safe pair of hands with Nine, a worthy if not earth-shattering addition to the canon of film-musicals. Hardcore fans of the stage musical might be perturbed (well, actually they'll probably be apoplectic, the default setting for hardcore fans) to find that about half of Maury Yeston's original score has been excised, and the story jumbled about somewhat. It makes for better pacing, though, and just goes to show that a bit of careful butchery can be a lot more effective than slavish adherence to the original.

It's the mid-1960s, and Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido Contini, a charismatic yet complex Italian film director who is suffering creative block just days away from beginning shooting on a new film. At the same time, he's having the sort of woman trouble you'd expect of someone so charismatic, complex and Italian. While he desperately tries both to write his script and to keep his wife (the excellent and lovely Marion Cotillard) from discovering his mistress (the marginally less excellent but even lovelier Penelope Cruz), he begins to conjure up visions. These fantasies of his dead mother, of himself as a young boy and of all the significant women in his life (each whom he idolises in a fairly creepy way), take the form of elaborate musical numbers. Here, Rob Marshall repeats his signature trick from Chicago, cutting between simultaneously unfolding parallel realities, one spoken and one musical, so that the drama never grinds to a halt to fit in a song.

It comes as no surprise that, throughout all this, Day-Lewis' performance is engaging and real, and he is able to make charming a somewhat unlikeable character. He brings genuine passion and energy to his singing, and if his voice isn't the most beautiful in the world, it's all the more compelling because of it. Indeed, acting trumps singing throughout the cast, and that's no bad thing.

The score itself is pleasant if unremarkable; only the cheerful anthem Be Italian (performed admirably by Fergie, with a surprisingly good full-chorus tambourine break) is really hummable. And the lyrics, whilst occasionally witty, are a little too on the nose for my liking.

Nine is an unusual musical, lacking the humour and vigour of Chicago, but at the same time not offering the psychological introspection of, say, Sweeny Todd either. I suspect it may have trouble finding an audience as a result. Where Mamma Mia recently had roaring success with menopausal women, who took their teenage daughters along for two hours of frothy escapist girl-power, Nine perhaps provides an opportunity for middle-aged dads to show their sons the lies, hypocrisy and barely concealed misogyny that make up a mid-life crisis: 'Look, son, this'll happen to you forty years, mark my... Oh my, isn't Penelope Cruz hot?'

VERDICT: Not exactly a toe-tapping triumph, but entertaining nevertheless.

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