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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Maestro // Film Review

“Don’t forget you’re a man.”
“I don’t.”

Like A Star Is Born (2018) before it, Maestro is very much an actor’s film. The opening scene is a close-up, documentary talking head on writer/director/star Bradley Cooper, who as Leonard Bernstein delivers his first of many monologues. Bernstein’s story is entirely about the idea of performance of course; he was a gay man working in the 40s, married with children and pursuing on his twin loves were orchestra and theatre. Indeed, the film’s first meet-cute romance between Bernstein and his later wife Felicia (Carey Mulligan) takes place on a literal stage, with the two flirting through line readings. Everyone in Maestro is putting on an act, lying to themselves as much as each other in this juicy, often draining maze of a melodrama, and the results are just devastatingly good.

There is no Maestro without Cooper and Mulligan in the leading roles, charting the life and death of a relationship across decades flawlessly, both through their morphing chemistry together and quieter moments apart. These are the twisting arcs of a husband realising the limits of his sexuality and a wife realising she has committed her life to his household, as the infectious giggling and joy of their early courtship dissipates entirely with time, leaving only muted pain told primarily through tight, trusting frames on the faces of its leads. One standout montage midway through depicts their early lives after marriage to the accompaniment of an orchestra, as Bernstein abandons his sexual whims and Felicia becomes adjusted to her duties in the home. Neither objects to this new status quo, smiling and laughing in the company of friends and cameras, but with each new time jump Cooper and Mulligan wear the increasing exhaustion of masking on their faces, counting down to the moment one or both will snap.

While Cooper and Mulligan’s superb performances might almost be taken for granted at this point from two of Hollywood’s best, what’s more impressive is Cooper’s skill behind the camera. Maestro marks a significant step up from the already-strong A Star Is Born, having to blend a range of styles and formats without breaking from that sombre, razor-edge tone. The film takes place across the 32 years of Bernstein and Felicia’s relationship, with each new ‘era’ in their lives being marked by shifts in both genre and camera technique.

Their blossoming romance, filmed all in black-and-white, evokes any number of classic Howard Hawks slapsticks. Bernstein and Felicia’s first meeting is perhaps the most explicit, alluding to His Girl Friday in their rapid, startlingly quick back-and-forth as they catch each other up on the entirety of their lives so far. There is a musical quality here as well, which culminates in a tremendously surreal dance number which seals the deal for the young couple, soon to be engaged.

Later sequences are filmed entirely in cold wide frames emulating the oft-detached style of Kubrick or Malick, with the actors kept far in the distance as they have some of the most profound and difficult conversations of their lives, their faces barely more than a dot against sublime, naturally lit backdrops. The composition and set design here are remarkable, making an epic from a chamber-piece two-hander and coming up with one of the year’s best looking films as a result. These genre hops - only two among several others - demonstrate Cooper's extraordinary range as a writer/director.

Above all else however, Maestro is most certainly a character-piece, and if anything stands above the rest in this exquisitely made piece of work, it's Mulligan as the woman who made a match of Lenny Bernstein. While Cooper soars with the crutches of a funny voice and prosthetics (which are surprisingly not distracting in the film proper), Mulligan has far less to work with in chronicling the age and emotion of their 32 year marriage, yet excels anyway. Whether it is the youthful, hungry gleam in her eye when she first meets a man every bit as enamoured with theatre as herself, her resigned smile in midlife or her last reflections at its tail-end, Mulligan does not miss a beat and orients herself as the film's heart despite having the less screen time of the pair. Much has been made of the decision to give Mulligan top billing over Cooper in Bernstein's own biopic, but in a character-piece centred on a man whose life was one long labyrinth of lies, it is fitting that the piece would rest on Mulligan's shoulders to make sense of it all, and she's more than up to the task.

Reviewed at the Venice Film Festival.


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