Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Devil’s Violinist: Paginini at the Crossroads

Niccolò Paginini was the Robert Johnson of classical music. His ferocious technique and unparalleled popular success were seriously considered the fruits of a Faustian bargain. The talent was always there. Getting people to listen was the hard part. In fact, it was such a tricky proposition, the materialist maestro gladly makes that deal in Bernard Rose’s The Devil’s Violinist (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Sulfur has not numbed the Mephistophelean Urbani’s nose for talent. He immediately recognizes the gifts of an aspiring Don Juan violinist scuffling in grubby music halls. He pledges to guarantee Paginini’s career and serve as his personal servant in this world, if Paginini agrees to do the same for him in the next. Shortly after signing a contract he probably should have read more closely, Paginini’s career ignites. He becomes a figure of dark romance and veiled controversy, like an early Nineteenth Century Heavy Metal rock star.

Eventually, Paginini gets bored with it all, spending long hours brooding in the tub, doing his best to resemble The Death of Marat. Fortunately, Paginini somewhat snaps out of his lethargy when he accepts upstart promoter John Watson’s offer to produce and conduct his London debuts concerts. However, Paginini’s demands will stretch the limits of Watson’s resources. Met by a mob of moralizing progressive protestors, Watson and his diva mistress Elisabeth Wells are forced to quarter Paginini and Urbani in their home. Of course, Watson’s daughter Charlotte immediately catches Paginini’s eye, but she is not inclined to swoon over the maestro, at least not yet.

We always thought Jared Harris just might be the Devil, so Violinist practically feels like a confirmation. He is delightfully sinister chewing on the scenery. Yet ironically, Urbani (who seems to be more of a minion than Old Scratch himself) is not infrequently portrayed as a more empathetic fellow than Paginini. Regardless, it is great fun watching him lurk and glower.

Violin prodigy and classical crossover artist David Garrett can certainly play. Acting is a little iffier. Perhaps the many scenes of his Paginini huddling in bed sheets in a state of near catatonia was a shrewd strategic decision on Rose’s part. Fortunately, Harris has some terrific supporting players to engage with, including Christian McKay, unflaggingly earnest as Watson, as well as Joely Richardson suggesting Eliza Doolittle’s morally flexible cousin as tabloid music critic Ethel Langham.

In a way, Devil’s Violinist reconciles the classy Jekyll films Rose has helmed, such as the Beethoven bio-pic Immortal Beloved and the superior Sophie Marceau version of Anna Karenina, with his Hydish scare fare, like Candyman and SXTape. For obvious reasons, he leans towards the former, depicting Urbani more as a Svengali than a figure of satanic horror. It works relatively well, despite Garrett’s awkwardness, which sometimes even feels fitting in context. Harris certainly does his thing and Garrett’s musical chops are also quite cinematic. Recommended for classical connoisseurs who appreciate a bit of uncanny garnish, The Devil’s Violinist opens this Friday (1/30) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.