Babylon arrives in British cinemas surrounded by all the signs of a cinematic disaster. The complaints are depressingly familiar. It’s too expensive, too complicated and, at three hours and nine minutes, too flipping long for mass consumption – though that doesn’t seem to have been a problem for the vapid Avatar: the Way of Water. The proof of the pudding, of course, is in the eating – and for anyone remotely interested in the history of cinema, this is a delicious confection, to be consumed slowly, relishing every mouthful. It manages to hold me spellbound throughout.
It’s the year 1926 and the silent cinema industry is rejoicing in its unparrallelled power and glory, staging depraved and profligate parties/orgies in the Hollywood Hills. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a silent movie star in the tradition of John Gilbert, has enjoyed an impressive career thus far and is blissfully unaware of the massive sea change that will hit the industry in just one year’s time. Meanwhile Manny Torres (Diego Calva) is taking his first steps into the industry he’s always longed to be part of, mainly by saying ‘yes’ to anything that comes his way – even if that means agreeing to transport an elephant to one the aforementioned parties. Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) is a trumpet player, whose presence at that very event initiates an opportunity to take his place – abeit briefly – in the Hollywood firmament.
And then there’s Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), self-styled wild child, currently broke and living in a shit hole, but able to bluff her way into any soiree. She’s not just convinced that she’s destined to be a star – she thinks she already is one, but nobody’s noticed yet. When she and Manny bump into each other, sparks fly between them – but it will be several years before they have anything resembling a relationship.
Babylon is another film about the magic of cinema, though it also has some harsh observations to make about the process of stardom – the arbitary quality of it, the way it defiines and redefines the people it happens to and how, in most cases it destroys them. Several of the characters here are based upon real people and, in some cases, they’re easy to identify. Others are composites. There are some wonderful evocations of the film-making process. An early scene depicting the shooting of a ‘silent’ sequence which features a battle between medieval armies is a joyful, rampaging slice of mayhem, with actual carnage occurring in the process. It’s contrasted with a scene just a year later, where the filming of an early ‘talkie’ is dependent on quiet, and constantly, maddeningly disrupted by every squeak of a shoe, every rustle of clothing.
And there’s a powerful coda in 1952 as an older, wiser Manny slips into a cinema to watch Singin’ in the Rain, only to see his life flashing before his eyes and twisted into comedy. The film’s final sequence is either utterly mesmerising or alienating – there are some walkouts at this point from those in the latter faction – but I adore it.
Babylon is big, powerful, ambitious and illuminating, all qualities that ought to make it a massive cinematic hit. But we seem to be living in an age where – James Cameron excepted – smaller, more personal films are ruiling the roost. This carries me effortlessly through its duration. Pitt is superb as a once great performer, watching in puzzlement as his powers wain. But Babylon is really Robbie’s film. As the dangerous, self-destructive Nellie LaRoy, she’s the beating heart of this sumptuous, powerful epic.