Sam Hamilton reviews the colourful Freddie Mercury biopic and Queen tribute.
Bryan Singer returns from the X-Men franchise to direct Bohemian Rhapsody: a big-budget, star-studded, thoroughly glamourised and oft-Americanised tale of the self-prescribed “hysterical Queen” that is Freddie Mercury. And despite first appearances, this is a film about the great performer and him alone. Yet whether it can be called a character study is debatable, since great swathes of darker material from the singer’s life are abandoned. Instead, Rhapsody opts for a more wide-release-friendly broad stroke of his wild persona. As such the plot reads like a formula Hollywood spectacle movie: rags-to-riches, abandons friends, realises wrongs, gets back together and blows-us-all-away. In many ways that is exactly what’s delivered. But in the magical sparks of Rami Malek’s virtuoso performance (as the one and only) and Newton Thomas Sigel’s sumptuous and smart cinematography, the film transcends what could have been just a Greatest Hits music video.
Malek works around a troublesome set of prosthetic teeth that belong more reasonably in parody than biopic. But he does so with great prowess: stepping skilfully into the glossy boots of a pop culture icon, never overdoing an easily overdoable character, adopting a near-flawless accent, and frequently playing down the big moments in such a way as to be at once mystifying and endearing. There is a charming and frustrating vulnerability to Malek’s Freddie that draws us in, very much like the camera, which often seems to linger in close-ups and carries our interest where the script cannot.
This is particularly the case in the film’s final third, where deepening troubles in Freddie’s personal life, and grappling tensions in his professional life, seem to evaporate just in time for the finale, leaving only a few stage nerves to stop him from acing it. A couple of vapid exchanges between band-members bury the potential for recognising a realistic conflict between them, the only memorable moments found in Roger’s (played smoothly by a charismatic Ben Hardy, the best of the entourage) sarcasm. There are many moments involving the crucial relationship between parents and son that fall short of eliciting any overwhelming response. And to add to this, scriptwriter Anthony McCarten injects a crowd-pleasing, sometimes silly, sensibility into many of the scenes where a straight approach may have been more effective – if at the expense of a few hushed giggles throughout the 2 hr 14 min runtime.
However, Rhapsody‘s chief sin is in neglecting the real weight of Mercury’s path towards recognising his homosexuality and the personal struggles that ensued – not to mention his fight with AIDS. Such an emotional tug of war is essentially muted, allowing only a handful of subtle moments to genuinely acknowledge the difficulties of hiding one’s true identity. This is where the film could have become the “epic poem” that Mercury describes Bohemian Rhapsody, the song, to be. This having been said, the gradually and tragically distancing relationship between Mercury and his “Love of My Life” Mary Austin plays out delicately, conjuring a throbbing sadness that remains one of the film’s most notable achievements. Other spellbinding moments include a captivating limo confrontation between Mercury and his managers as well as the always-priceless cameo contribution of Mike Myers, as a very distressed record label owner in Ray Foster.
Director Singer, arm in arm with longtime collaborator and cinematographer Sigel, battles any and all mundanity in the film with a vibrant colour palette and eclectic, energetic movement in and between set pieces. One particular shot of Mercury, stood tall, head rocked back at 90˚, balanced against an expressionistic array of interior decorations, played perfectly in scene; this and others reconfirm Sigel as a master of his craft in his best work since Drive (2011). Complete with an awesome (as if there could be any doubt) selection of tracks, and enchanting reenactments of some of the band’s top moments, Bohemian Rhapsody, even if it’s not the biopic Freddie deserves, warms the heart, salutes the spirit of its hero, and will endeavour to make you sing along.
Bohemian Rhapsody was released in October 2018. It is nominated for Best Picture at the 2019 Academy Awards. Check out the trailer below: