Director: Bernard Rose (Immortal Beloved, Ivansxtc, The Kreutzer Sonata, Two Jacks)
Writer: Bernard Rose
Producers: Christian Angermayer, Gabriela Bacher, Rosilyn Heller, Danny Krausz
Starring: David Garrett, Jared Harris, Joely Richardson, Christian McKay, Veronica Ferres, Andrea Deck
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 122 min.
Coming into The Devil’s Violinist, I had little knowledge about the project besides the fact that it was biopic of Niccolò Paganini, a violinist and composer I knew nearly nothing about. I didn’t recognize the handsome dark haired actor portraying Paganini but Jared Harris is certainly a great talent and let’s be frank, when have I ever been known to pass up a costume drama? Never, that’s when.
The Devil’s Violinist isn’t so much a biography as it is a drama about a musician who we know for a fact was a talented violinist and composer, a man who lived a lavish lifestyle and who was rumoured to be associated with the devil. Writer/director Bernard Rose takes a very short list of facts and weaves a story of mystery, intrigue and of a tortured artist who sells his soul to the devil, enjoys everything the world has to offer – from women to drugs – and eventually suffers for it.
If you’re looking for a biography on Paganini, you had best look elsewhere. Rose’s take on the maestro is so frivolously extrapolated that The Devil’s Violinist is far more fiction than anything else. I went reading about Paganini after seeing the movie only to discover that, among other inconsistencies, he suffered from syphilis and was later treated for tuberculosis neither of which was mentioned in the movie. As for his involvement with the devil… the movie does seem to get that part right. One can’t call this any sort of biography which leads to the question: why use Paganini’s name at all? My thought is that it adds intrigue and frankly, it’s a great excuse to fill the movie with spectacular music.
And the music is truly spectacular. As are the costumes, the set design and the cinematography. The Devil’s Violinist can’t be faulted for its looks or even for its performances. Harris is brilliantly creepy as Paganini’s assistant Urbani, new comer Andrea Deck is wonderful as Paganini’s love interest Charlotte while Christian McKay is memorable as Charlotte’s father and the investor who risks everything to bring Paganini to London. It’s Paganini himself who leaves something to be desired.
Rose chose to cast renowned musician David Garrett as Paganini and the gamble doesn’t fully pay off. Garrett is wonderful when he’s talking about music, playing the music or throwing a tantrum but in moments when he needs to emote, the musician is flat and uninteresting; handsome to be sure but completely emotionless. The result is an inconsistent movie which is often good but that, for most of its running time, lacks an interesting lead. Garrett manages to coast from the musical scenes to the dramatic ones but the charm of his playing starts to wear thin partway through.
I’ve had a love hate relationship with Rose’s work over the years. I loved Immortal Beloved (admittedly this has the Gary Oldman factor) and liked his interpretation of Anna Karenina but by the time we got to Rose’s second entry in his trilogy with muse-of-the-moment Danny Huston, I’d had enough and pretty much forgotten about the director. The Devil’s Violinist though not totally successful, is an interesting interpretation of the composer as a pop star, and some of the scenes look like mob scenes out of a newsreel about Justin Bieber (if Bieber’s fans all decided to dress in period costume for a day). I appreciate that Rose is playing with periods and ideas in a way that is unique but really, I like The Devil’s Violinist because it’s fun to watch and the music is well worth the price of admission.
The Devil’s Violinist is available in theatres and VOD Friday, January 30th.