Bohemian Rhapsody

Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aiden Gillan, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers

Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: Anthony McCarten


There’s a scene in the middle of Bohemian Rhapsody where the four members of Queen are pitching their latest album to a big-time music producer. They’ve all agreed that the lead single must be their poetic, operatic six-minute song entitled ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, but this big record label cheese isn’t going for it. It’s “not possible”, he says. The radio stations won’t play anything over three minutes. The song has too many weird words and sounds in it. This isn’t the kind of song that teenagers can bang their heads to at top volume in the car. It’ll never work! He entreats them to stick to the rock anthem formula that’s already worked for them, but Queen isn’t interested in formulas. They want to push boundaries, defy labels, and make music nobody has ever heard before. The buffoonish bigwig (played by famed ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ headbanger Mike Myers no less) refuses to budge and, as the bandmates storm out, he obnoxiously declares “Mark these words, no one will play Queen”.

While the scene itself is entirely fictional (the Ray Foster character that Myers plays was invented for the film), to dwell on that is to miss the point. This is a dramatization of a true story and liberties have to be taken. The purpose of this scene is to emphasise Queen’s nonconformity and artistic integrity. They will not allow themselves to be constrained by the rules, formulas and standards set by musically illiterate hacks and moneygrubbing executives. They’re in it for the music and they want to offer the audience something new, dynamic and unique. It’s an admirable mission statement made by an innovative band fronted by one of the greatest, most ingenious singers who ever lived. It’s why I wish Bohemian Rhapsody had even one tenth of the originality, fearlessness and spirit of its main character and the music he and the rest of Queen created. For a movie that so eagerly champions the notion of subverting expectations, breaking all the rules, and challenging the norm, Bohemian Rhapsody is so painfully generic, formulaic and predictable. If you’ve seen the parodic take that Walk Hard offered on films of this exact kind, its derivativeness becomes almost laughable.

It pains me to write this because I had high expectations for this film, not least because Queen was probably the greatest sing-along band of my childhood (the only other two that come close are The Beatles and ABBA). Yet it sticks to the weathered musical biopic template so rigidly that you half expect the movie’s version of Freddie Mercury (played by Rami Malek) to lose his sense of sight, suffer a childhood trauma that haunts him throughout his career, or go through a meltdown that involves breaking a nearby sink. The prescribed beats are all there; we meet a young, naïve singer with enormous, untapped talent who finds success and fame despite the scepticism of his disapproving family and then rises to superstardom before losing themselves in a cesspit of sex and drugs. In the end the singer hits rock bottom but is then inspired to seek and find redemption in the form of a triumphant comeback. None of this is done in service of telling a specific story with something meaningful to say about the singer and the life he lived; the emphasis is on hitting as many major life moments as they can while cramming in as many songs as possible. What you get is thus a Wikipedia article with a soundtrack. It tells you the who, what, when and wheres of Freddie’s life, but you won’t learn anything about him.

The reason for this is that Bohemian Rhapsody has little, if any, interest in the humanity behind the story. The movie instead concerns itself with minor details of little consequence such as which band member wrote which song, as if the real Brian May and Roger Taylor (played by Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy respectively) feel that their roles in the story won’t be fully appreciated unless it’s made clear to the audience that it wasn’t Freddie who wrote ‘We Will Rock You’ or ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. While this movie does at least delve more into the musician’s creative process than other biopics tend to do, it still comes at the expense of any introspective explorations of character. Take Freddie Mercury’s ethnicity as an example. Freddie was born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar to Parsi parents, yet part of the reason this did not prove to be a barrier in his pursuit of rock and roll stardom is because he could pass for white. This angle has the makings of a potentially fascinating and culturally relevant story. Was Freddie’s ethnicity one of the reasons he felt like an outcast growing up and was it partly what inspired him to make music for other outcasts? Did passing for white stir up complicated feelings about his family, culture and identity? Does Rami Malek, an American actor of Egyptian descent, identify with these feelings on some level? Any viewer hoping that Bohemian Rhapsody will address these questions on any meaningful level will be left disappointed.

Another side of Freddie’s character that the movie at least attempts to address on a thoughtful level is his sexual orientation and the result is… problematic. I don’t think this is because the film’s PG-13 rating necessitated a less explicit exploration of his sex life, in fact a part of me likes the idea of a mainstream Hollywood movie in which an LGBT icon is celebrated as a legend being readily accessible to teenagers and children. The problem is that the film’s depiction of his sexuality is so backwards it feels like it could have been made in the 90s. For one thing the movie doesn’t allow Freddie to express his sexuality on his own terms. When he comes out as bisexual to his fiancé Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), which is exactly what he declared himself to be in real life, she replies “Freddie, you’re gay”. Having an LGBT man’s sexuality dictated to him by a heterosexual woman is one thing, but then the movie proceeds to portray his homosexuality as an actively destructive force in his life even after he embraces it. His most prominent relationship with another man is shared with the band’s manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), the most unambiguously villainous character in the film. It is he who gets the blame for Freddie’s debauchery as he supplies him with booze, drugs and groupies. He also manipulates Freddie into leaving Queen in order to pursue a career as a soloist because the film is loath to give its lead any significant amount of autonomy.

That the film had a messy production did it no favours. Even after losing their original attached star, Bohemian Rhapsody went on to lose its director Bryan Singer, who remains credited in the final film, amid a scandal in which he was accused of being a sexual predator. The movie feels embarrassingly chopped together in its finished form and contains several scenes edited within an inch of their lives with no direction other than to give every member of Queen an equal amount of screen time. Even then, however, there may not have been very much that stand-in director Dexter Fletcher could have done to save the film with what he had been left by Singer to work with. Even putting aside his reprehensible actions, Singer is probably the blandest director they could have chosen out of all the openly gay directors working in Hollywood. There is little that is distinctive in the way Bohemian Rhapsody is shot, except for the actual ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ sequence which recreates the image of the band shrouded in darkness from the music video while passages from the original negative reviews of the song flash on-screen as it grows into a phenomenon, and many of the scenes feel so generic in their inclusion (including a scene that’s helpfully captioned “Midwest USA”) that it feels like they were doing a colour-by-numbers biopic from the start. I can only dream what somebody like Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Lee Daniels, Jodie Foster or Ryan Murphy might have done with Freddie Mercury’s story.

Still, Bohemian Rhapsody is not without its good points. Its best quality by a mile and a half is Rami Malek’s performance as the champion himself. In the years since his death Freddie Mercury has evolved to become more myth than man and that is a difficult persona for any actor to imitate, never mind embody. What Malek does is far more than mere lip-syncing and dancing on a stage; he captures this electrifying, larger-than-life essence with a wicked air of flamboyance and a swaggering stance and walk that make you believe he could have been one of the great, demonstrative, hypersexual stars of glam rock along with David Bowie, Elton John and Prince. That Malek manages all of this while still channelling the deeper humanity beneath it all shows what an inspired casting choice he was and hints at the Freddie Mercury biopic that could have been. You get a sense of the man who was living this self-made persona even before he had an audience to perform for and who shows himself capable of both tremendous arrogance and narcissism and heartfelt affection and sincerity. It is a truly extraordinary performance deserving of an extraordinary film.

The movie is usually at its most sensational and superficial during the musical performances and nowhere is this more evident than the 1985 Live Aid sequence where Freddie reforms with Queen and delivers a knockout concert for the ages as if his life depended on it (which, the way the movie tells it, it kind of did). If there’s one thing that Bohemian Rhapsody gets absolutely right apart from Malek, it’s that a stunning, breathtaking finale can make an audience feel like the whole effort was worth it. Even if it rings hollow to those who happen to know that Freddie’s HIV diagnosis, which the movie uses as the justification for bringing Queen back together (even though they never actually broke up) for the concert, actually happened two years later, it’s still hard not to be completely swept away by Malek’s magnetic presence, the pulsating energy, and the sheer awesomeness of Queen’s music. That doesn’t make it any less superficial though. It’s a glorious moment for Freddie, but it isn’t a humanising one. Bohemian Rhapsody is nothing more than a greatest hits compilation that doesn’t even have a story to tell, never mind a statement of actual substance. What we got instead is a two star biopic entirely unworthy of the man it depicts or the music he created (and, truth be told, that second star is mostly for Malek).

★★

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Darkest Hour

Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn

Director: Joe Wright

Writer: Anthony McCarten


It’s interesting that Darkest Hour ended up coming out the same year as Dunkirk. Both films take place at exactly the same time and are more or less centred on the exact same event, the defeat and evacuation of the British army in Nazi-occupied France, but both from very different perspectives. Dunkirk takes us right into the action in the most astoundingly visceral way and is so focused on the emotions of the soldiers in that moment that it says practically nothing about the larger historical context. Darkest Hour reveals some of that context, detailing the crisis in leadership that emerged in the wake of what looked like imminent defeat and the dire mood that dominated Parliament. Unlike Nolan’s quasi-silent epic, this story is told not in images but in dialogue as it directly engages with the larger meaning of the events that unfolded which in Dunkirk had been simply implied. The way that these two films inform each other is fascinating and, the more I think about the sensational, intense experience of watching Dunkirk, the less impressive I find Darkest Hour to be.

It is 1940 and Great Britain is at war with Germany. The disgraced Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has resigned as Prime Minister for his failure to contend with Hitler’s ambition and a new Tory leader must be found who will have the support of both the people and the opposition party. Chamberlain’s preferred successor Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) rejects the offer and so Parliament turns to Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), a divisive figure with a poor war record but the only man who understood the threat Hitler posed from the start. Thus King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), despite his personal dislike of the man, invites Churchill to form a war government. Churchill gets to work immediately, forming a war cabinet that includes Halifax, Chamberlain, and the “sheep in sheep’s clothing” Anthony Eden (Samuel West) and making clear that he has no intention whatsoever of negotiating peace terms with Germany. As the situation in France worsens and the party’s confidence in their leader decreases, Churchill feels more and more the weight of history on his shoulders.

In the role that will almost certainly win him an Oscar, Oldman delivers a fine performance indeed. Working through make-up and prosthetics, Oldman is as forceful and expressive as he’s ever been and is able to build a compelling portrait of the man. Before becoming Prime Minister, Churchill was a contentious figure, disliked by many for his controversial opinions, uncouth humour, and bad judgement, particularly with Gallipoli and India. The man may very well never have won the support to become Prime Minister had he not happened to be absolutely right about Hitler at this crucial time. Oldman thus embraces the ‘100 Greatest Britons’ poll winner’s boorish, impetuous side and brings much humanity to an unrefined figure who effectively lucked into the highest office in government and suddenly held the fate of the British Empire in his hands. The weight of the responsibility is never lost on him, but there is a question of whether Churchill’s decision to fight on to the bitter end is truly in the people’s best interest or if he’s allowing his passions and prejudices to drive Britain into ruin. Oldman displays all the strength, wit, and vulnerabilities of Churchill’s character and is more than worthy of the acclaim he has received.

Sadly the rest of the film isn’t as strong. Wright is able to convey a definite sense of urgency and immediacy to the few days where Britain’s fate hung delicately in the balance, but not in a way that felt truthful to me. The film is historical fiction, so naturally liberties have to be taken in the interest of creating an engaging, efficient drama. Accuracy is therefore all but irrelevant, what really matters is truthfulness; the events don’t have to perfectly match what actually happened as long as we believe in what it shows us instead. Darkest Hour didn’t work for me in this regard because the story often felt contrived to me. Through stilted, on-the-nose dialogue and certain scenes that felt theatrical in their arrangement and performance, I never honestly believed that I was there the way I did with Dunkirk. Even allowing for the fact that Darkest Hour was not made with the intention of being as cinematically overwhelming as the Nolan film, the film just felt too much like a reproduction to me than it did a story. The one scene where this is most apparent is when Churchill takes a ride on the London Underground and talks to some of the people, a preposterous scene that feels as cheap as it feels fake.

It is a competently told story at any rate. There are enough decent performances to support Oldman in his tour-de-force from Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s supportive wife Clemmie, to Dillane as the calculating Halifax whose pragmatism serves as a foil to Churchill’s idealism, to Lily James as the determined, doe-eyed secretary. The film also does a pretty good job of highlighting what exactly it was that made Churchill not just a great leader but also the right leader for Britain at this time. His greatest asset as Prime Minister was not his intelligence, strength, or authority, it was his charisma and the film places a strong emphasis on the critical role his rhetoric played in building the morale of the British people. While I don’t think the way the film did this always worked (e.g. in that Underground scene), it was fine when it did. There is also a convincing sense of sincerity to the character, in large part due to Oldman’s acting. The seriousness with which he treats his task and the passion with which he delivers his speeches convinces you that this is a man who will absolutely give his “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” to see Britain through this dark hour. Dunkirk this film is not, but Darkest Hour is fine for what it is.

★★★

The Theory of Everything

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, David Thewlis, Simon McBurney, Emily Watson

Director: James Marsh

Writer: Anthony McCarten


Last year I saw a documentary about Stephen Hawking which introduced me to his remarkable story. I was deeply moved by the extraordinary life that he has led and was very much looking forward to seeing his story realised in a dramatic form. However I do realise that a remarkable story does not necessarily make a remarkable film and shall attempt to assess this film based on its own merits. With that in mind, The Theory of Everything is in itself a rather moving film that admirably depicts the struggle of a man with a brilliant mind suffering from motor neurone disease and the struggle of his equally brilliant wife in her effort to support him.

The film starts off at Cambridge University in 1963 where an astrophysics student named Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and a literature student named Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) meet at a party. Stephen is shown to possess a very advanced mind and a keen thirst for knowledge as he reveals his greatest aspiration to be the search for the answer to life and existence. Jane meanwhile shows herself to be a very learned and cultured woman who is fascinated by Stephen’s intelligence but is not daunted by it as she challenges him on his dismissal of God’s existence. The two are smitten with each other and soon embark on a romantic relationship. The way this is done is a bit too romanticised for my liking (eyes meeting from across the room and all that), but the chemistry this couple shares is captivating and so I find myself willing to overlook this.

While this is happening Stephen starts showing the early signs of his disease as he has difficulties picking things up and stumbles slightly as he walks. He shrugs off these symptoms and attends a lecture on black holes which finally gives him the inspiration he needs to form a working theory about the creation of the universe. As he begins his pursuit of this theory he has an accident that leads him to visit the hospital. It is here that he receives his crushing diagnosis. Stephen is told that he has a degenerative disease that will deprive him of the control over his body and is given two years to live. Despite his attempt to push Jane away in order to spare her from pain and heartbreak, she finds out the truth and resolves to make the most of what little time they may have together. The rest of the film portrays the difficulties that Stephen’s disease brings to his work and marriage as he and his wife fight tooth and nail not to let his disease defeat them.

Eddie Redmayne delivers a breath-taking performance as Stephen Hawking both emotionally and physically. His portrayal of the effects of motor neurone disease on the way he walks, talks, looks and behaves are so convincing and so harrowing to watch that one often forgets that he is in fact an actor playing a part. He shows great conviction as Stephen in his effort not to let his condition prevent him from becoming one of the greatest minds in scientific study.Felicity Jones delivers a formidable performance as a woman struggling to cope with the life that she has chosen. She gives up her own ambitions so that Stephen might realise his as she dedicates herself to Stephen’s care and to raising their children. Jones depicts her character’s struggle with such heart and turmoil that it becomes all too apparent that this disease has just as heavy a toll on Jane as it does on her husband. Through Jane the film raises compelling questions about love and marriage and what exactly it means to love someone in sickness and in health.

It is often the case with biopics that the screenwriter and director merely attempt to recreate the key moments of the subject’s life, almost like a greatest hits compilation, without attempting any insight into the people themselves or what they did. The Theory of Everything is not one of those films. The director James Marsh and the screenwriter Anthony McCarten do not merely attempt to portray the struggle that this couple endured, they attempt to understand it by showing how it affected them. Stephen copes with the loss of his body by using the one resource that he still controls, his mind. He focuses all of his efforts onto his work so that he might do the one thing he knows he can do well and not allow himself to be limited by his disease. By doing so he neglects Jane who in turn must seek love and affection where she can find it, all the while never forgetting her duty and responsibility to her husband. This does not go unnoticed by Stephen, nor does he judge her for it.

The Theory of Everything is a wonderfully sensitive film that provides insightful reflections on these two characters and the marriage that they shared. It raises the challenges inherent with being unable to love someone or to be loved by their hearts’ desire. It depicts a powerful story of mind over matter. It provides an inspired and honest portrayal of a truly remarkable man and his remarkable life and marriage.

★★★★