Maestro – movie review

Actor-director Bradley Cooper shows his success in A Star is Born was no fluke with Maestro. This impressionistic portrait of the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein is technically dazzling, although its oblique approach may distance some viewers.

As with A Star is Born, Cooper again pulls triple duty as director, actor (in the titular role of Bernstein) and co-writer. So his fingerprints are literally all over this production. In all three departments, he makes some bold – even challenging – choices. Not the least of those is the choice to explore Bernstein not so much through the thing he’s best known for (his music) but through the prism of his marriage. That decision means that if come to the film for the music, you may be disappointed. His famous score for West Side Story, for example, is referenced in two lines of dialogue. In fairness, the soundtrack consists almost entirely of Bernstein’s music although some pieces will be more familiar than others. Cooper also has his cast adopt a naturalistic approach to dialogue where several characters will sometimes speak at once. This can be distracting, if not outright confusing; though I found myself getting used to it after a while.

Instead of a career retrospective, Cooper concentrates on the relationship between Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre Cohn (Carey Mulligan). The film sets the scene with Bernstein’s breakthrough when called at very short notice to conduct the New York Philharmonic when its lead conductor Artur Rodziński fell ill. But it quickly skips to the party at which Bernstein meets Felicia. Although Bernstein is essentially “out” as a gay man (at least as “out” as the 1940s would allow), he’s smitten with Felicia who he feels is a kindred spirit. She’s a Broadway (and later screen) actress, an intellectual and is passionate about social justice. They marry and have three children. The film charts the highs and lows of both their marriage and their careers. But the inherent contradictions of two driven individuals trying to balance work with a home life, and of a gay man in a straight relationship, put their pairing in continual peril.

Cooper divides the film into two halves: from the 1940s to the 1950s, and from the 1960s onward. The first half is filmed in crisp black-and-white, and the second in washed-out colour (similar to Oppenheimer). Props have to go to cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Don’t Worry Darling) who works in the boxy Academy ratio but still manages to produce at least two of the most brilliant shots of the year. The musical score of course is magnificent, ranging from Bernstein’s musicals like On the Town through to his monumental symphonies and choral works.

Much like Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, this film flits along; skipping years at a time to touch down at significant points. Even as it doesn’t present a detailed portrait of Bernstein, it equally glosses over aspects of Felicia’s life, notably her work for civil rights. It also presumes a certain level of knowledge about Bernstein and his music; something that may be more familiar to an American audience than an Australian one. But in the end, this is a story of two people trying to navigate each other and life’s difficulties through turbulent times.

Much as the title suggests the film is about Bernstein, it really revolves around Carey Mulligan (Saltburn) as Felicia and she’s brilliant in a very difficult role. Her performance is brave, complex and nuanced. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she’s in the Oscars conversation. Cooper somewhat plays second-fiddle (no pun intended) to Mulligan as Bernstein. He too however delivers a powerhouse performance, full of energy and vibrancy. The make-up department deserve a special mention for the way they seamlessly age both leads. While the supporting cast is large, few of the other characters get much of a chance to make an impression. That said, Matt Bomer (Magic Mike’s Last Dance) as Bernstein’s sometime lover David Oppenheim; Sarah Silverman (Don’t Look Up) as his sister Shirley and Maya Hawke (Asteroid City) as his eldest daughter Jamie, all stand out.

Cooper’s trajectory as a director is certainly on the up, and Maestro is a fine example of his potential, even if it’s not “perfect”. This is not a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie. This is serious cinema, sometimes difficult, sometimes profound. But for all its challenges, it remains a fine achievement.

Maestro is in cinemas now and on Netflix from 20 December 2023

David Edwards

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