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Returning to the classical music bio-pic well that paid off so handsomely for him twenty years ago with Immortal Beloved, director Bernard Rose fares much less well with The Devil’s Violinist. While his previous effort featured a mesmerizing performance by Gary Oldman as Beethoven, this drama about famed 19th century Italian violinist Niccolo Paganini suffers from the casting of David Garrett in the lead role. While the popular violin virtuoso certainly has the musical chops and darkly handsome looks to credibly portray the early rock star musician, his wooden acting fatally sinks the project.
Exploiting the myth that the musician had sold his soul to the devil to achieve his fame, the 1830-set film begins with Paganini being approached by the mysterious Urbani (Jared Harris, in full Mephistopheles mode), who offers to make him rich and famous for the price of, well, you know.
Hammering home the point, their meeting features Paganini instructing Urbani to come into his hotel room, only to be met with the response, “It must be said three times.”
Urbani soon makes good on his promise, with the violinist enjoying sweeping success throughout Europe even while indulging in his hedonistic lifestyle of excessive womanizing and drinking. Booked to play London by impresario John Watson (Christian McKay) who goes nearly bankrupt in the process, Paganini finds himself met by a group of angry women protestors led by Primrose Blackstone (Olivia d’Abo) who object to his wanton ways. But he’s quickly championed by journalist Ethel Langham (Joely Richardson, overworking her Cockney accent), whose glowing reviews fuel the box-office receipts.
When Urbani and his star musician are forced to stay at Watson’s house to avoid the rabid fans thronging their hotel, Paganini falls head over heels for their host’s beautiful young daughter Charlotte (Andrea Deck), an aspiring opera singer with whom he soon begins both a personal and professional relationship. This naturally doesn’t sit well with his controlling manager who schemes to sabotage the romance.
While its themes border on the sensationalistic, the film lacks the sizzle, humor and wild imagination that Ken Russell brought to his similar classical music-themed cinematic excursions. Ponderously paced and mostly flat in its dramatic effect, this wooden period piece is slow going indeed. And while the handsome sets and costumes generally do justice to the setting, the obviously low-budget results in some visual cheesiness, most notably in a scene set on a dock in which the background is groaningly fake looking.
As if to compensate for the star’s lack of dramatic oomph, the supporting performers tend to ham it up, with mostly lamentable results. But there’s certainly no faulting Garrett’s rapid-fire violin playing which brings the musical sequences, at least, to stirring life.
Production: Summerstorm Entertainment
Cast: David Garrett, Jared Harris, Andrea DeckJoely Richardson, Christian McKay, Veronica Ferres, Helmut Berger, Olivia d’Abo
Director/screenwriter/director of photography: Bernard Rose
Producers: Rosilyn Heller, Gabriela Bacher, Danny Krausz, Christian Angemayer
Executive producers: David Garrett, Dominic Berger, Craig Blake-Jones, Markus R. Vogelbacher, Marc Hansell, Michael Scheel
Production designer: Christoph Kanter
Editor: Britta Nahler
Costume designer: Birgit Hutter
Composers: David Garrett, Franck van der Heijden
Casting: John Hubbard, Ros Hubbard
Rated R, 122 min.
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