Ben Hardy

Bohemian Rhapsody

10/11/18

There seems to be a bit of a Greatest Showman buzz about this film. Most critics have been decidedly sniffy about it, accusing it of glossing over some of Freddie Mercury’s darker traits, as well as his bisexuality. Audiences, on the other hand, have eagerly embraced it, claiming it as a five star picture. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between these extremes.

It’s a competent biopic, with a mesmerising central performance from Rami Malek that goes way beyond mere impersonation. He fully inhabits the character of Freddie Mercury and it’s interesting to conjecture how the film might have fared if it had stuck with its original lead, Sacha Baron Cohen. It’s hard to believe anyone could have done it more justice. Still, for all that, there are missteps in the mix and, just like The Greatest Showman, this so-called ‘true story’ takes some sizeable liberties.

We first meet Freddie in 1970, when he’s still Farrokh Bulsara, working as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport and, in his spare time, virtually stalking local band, Smile, which features Brian May (Gwilym Lee) on lead guitar and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) on drums. When the band’s singer departs to join another outfit, the way is open for Freddie to offer his services as vocalist and songwriter. After a slightly shaky start, and the addition of bass player, John Deacon (Ray Mazello), the band soon have a record deal and are on the way to a brilliant career. Freddie, of course, woos and marries the ‘love of his life,’ Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), something that proves rather awkward when he latterly arrives at the conclusion that he’s bisexual.

To give the screenwriters their due, they don’t exactly ignore Mercury’s darker side, particularly during the period where he leaves the band to embark on an ill-fated solo career (although, in reality, that break up never actually happened). He is shown to be a loose canon, indulging in the excessive lifestyle that ultimately led to his untimely death. Even here there are untruths. The film wants us to believe that Freddie had his HIV diagnosis before he appeared at Live Aid. He didn’t. Also, the gig, which took place in 1985, is depicted here as some kind of a reunion for the band, but actually they’d been recording their album The Works only the year before and had just toured it all over the world.

Of course, changing the truth for dramatic effect is not exactly a new phenomenon, but what about those missteps I mentioned? Well, for one thing, the other members of Queen seem incapable of speaking any of their lines without throwing in some exposition, just in case we’re unsure of what’s happening at any given time. For another, the clunky scenes where Freddie interacts with his Zoroastrian parents, Bomi and Ger, are decidedly mawkish. There’s also a cameo by Mike Myers as (fictional) EMI record executive ‘Ray Foster’, who denounces the titular single as ‘too long for the radio’ in a cod Northern accent that borders on caricature. This leads to the band walking out on their record label. (Again, this didn’t happen.) In the end, it’s these liberties that niggle me more than anything else. When you’ve got a story as amazing as this one, why muddy the waters by adding stuff that never actually occurred?

Of course, you can forgive a lot when you have the kind of soundtrack that’s offered here, featuring pretty much all of Queen’s biggest hits – and the decision to end the film with an uncanny twenty minute recreation of the band’s appearance at Live Aid is a clever mood, sending audiences out on a high. Rami Malek’s performance is the kind of flashy role that can attract Oscar attention, and I won’t be remotely surprised if he gets a nomination next year – but to my mind,  Bohemian Rhapsody represents a bit of a missed opportunity.

In the end, it’s a decent biopic, but not an entirely convincing one.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

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Mary Shelley

09/07/18

It’s one of the most fascinating stories in the history of literature – how an eighteen year old girl, albeit the daughter of two respected writers and the partner of an acclaimed poet, managed to create one of the most seminal novels of all time – a book that has never been out of print since its release in 1818, one that has been filmed and staged countless times… and a book, moreover, that is a brilliant metaphor for womankind’s lot in the male-dominated society of the period.

Here, Mary is played by Elle Fanning, doing that sleepy-eyed, sulky thing she does so perfectly, while the role of Percy Bysshe Shelley is played by Douglas Booth. Indeed, at times, it’s hard to decide which one of them is the most photogenic. When we first encounter Mary, she’s sixteen years old, living with her father, the bookseller William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), her argumentative stepmother, Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggat), and her stepsister, Claire (Bel Powley). Mary is obsessed with reading Gothic horror stories and is already making her first tentative attempts at writing fiction but, as her father tells her, she needs to stop imitating others and ‘find her own voice.’

On a rare visit to one of her cousins in Scotland, she encounters the handsome Percy Shelley and there’s an instant attraction between them. Summoned back to London because of Claire’s fictional ‘illness’, Mary is astonished when Percy turns up at her father’s bookshop, having enlisted William as his patron. It’s only a matter of time before Mary and Percy are in the throes of a full-blown romance. It’s not all plain sailing though. For one thing, there’s the fact that Percy already has a wife and daughter, a little detail that he has completely neglected to mention. But Mary manages to put her doubts aside. She’s smitten.

And then, to the complete disgust of polite society, the two lovers decide to run away together, taking Claire along for the ride. The three of them live a dissolute existence, struggling to make money and frittering away whatever they earn on alcohol and extravagant parties. Percy believes in free love and it isn’t long before, much to Mary’s dismay,  he’s drawing Claire into his amorous clutches. Then, the trio find themselves invited by Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) to stay at his villa in Switzerland, where he and his personal physician, Dr John Polidori (Ben Hardy), are currently holidaying – and where all the elements are in place for the creation of a Gothic masterpiece.

Haifaa al Monsour’s film sticks fairly closely to the facts and, despite the odd contemporary-sounding phrase, Emma Jensen’s screenplay easily manages to hold the attention. If Shelley comes across as a privileged idiot, he’s totally eclipsed by Byron, who, as portrayed by Sturridge, is easily the most slappable person in nineteenth century Europe, prone to making vile utterances about the superiority of men and engaging in macho posturing. Indeed, amongst the young male characters, only Polidori emerges as genuinely decent, though the treatment he experiences at the hands of the two poets might give him good cause to be surly.

This is a good movie, handsomely staged and capably directed. It may be the first time that the extraordinary nature of Mary’s achievement has been fully realised onscreen. If the film is a little short on fireworks, it’s nonetheless offers a fascinating insight into the scandalous events that surrounded the creation of Frankenstein.

4 stars

Philip Caveney