REVIEW: Maestro [London Film Festival 2023]

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Maestro is a film obsessed with virtuosity.

Given the rapturous reception of his directorial debut, 2018’s A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper, who also stars, co-writes, and produces, has stacked the deck somewhat with his biopic of esteemed American conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein.

Opening in rarefied black-&-white with a compact 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Maestro seeks to mirror the boundless energy of its subject; who, as the film would have it, leaps out of bed, way from his nude lover, sprints down the corridor, and emerges straight into Carnegie Hall.

Cooper’s Bernstein, then age 25, is infectiously enthusiastic, playful, charming and tactile, and forms an immediate bond with socialite and actress Felicia Monteagle (Carey Mulligan), a fellow bright young thing among bright young things. As grand and luminous as this is, it’s done in such an arch, controlled manner as to be utterly airless.

For such a seeming free spirit, Bernstein is compromised by his refusal to acknowledge his sexuality. For me, the most powerful scene in the Maestro was that of him and the aforementioned lover David Oppenheim (openly gay actor Matt Bomer) – who Wikipedia, euphemistically or otherwise describes as a “close friend” of Bernstein – walking together in silence, separated by their shared history. It’s a quiet, sober counterpoint to beautiful people laughing and dancing in well-lit rooms.

Maestro hits its stride when, around the halfway point, it segues into rich, saturated colour, the aspect ratio shifting to 16:9. The film, like its subject, begins to engage maturely with its subject; a lovely, charming, increasingly rumpled genius who wants or needs too much. It’s only when Felicia starts calling her husband out, his affairs, his hypocrisy, that Maestro becomes more than hagiography.

In fairness, the film doesn’t shortchange Felicia, whose own vivacity is subsumed by heartbreak. Mulligan’s bright, brittle, desperately upbeat performance is a rewarding counterpoint to Cooper-Bernstein’s self-congratulatory joie de vivre, his endless chain-smoking, joyous conducting; the me-me-me of it all.

Maestro is an intelligent, empathetic work of filmmaking once it, like its subject, stops being quite so in love with their own genius, indeed with their own empathy. That said, I can’t say I understand Bernstein’s contribution to 20th Century music much more than before the 130 minute runtime.

Maestro is a testament to talent and personality, but a little fundamental theory might have gone a long way.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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