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Movie Reviews

Maestro ★★★



Directed: Bradley Cooper

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bradley Cooper, Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, Sarah Silverman

Released: 20 December (Netflix)

Starring and directed by Bradley Cooper, Maestro is Cooper’s highly anticipated follow-up to his directorial debut, his 2018 Academy Award-winning adaptation of A Star is Born. The film focuses on the relationship between composer Leonard Bernstein (Cooper) and his wife, actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan).

Although he is a prolific composer, teacher and pianist, audiences will most likely recognise Bernstein for his work on West Side Story, for which he wrote the music. The film explores the composer’s relationship with Montealegre, charting from their cute meeting and her unwavering support through his burgeoning career – not to mention his flirtatious behaviour towards men and women.

There is a timelessness in Maestro’s aesthetic that shapes it into this classic, old-school Hollywood romance. The bold score emphasises the introductory black and white visuals that capture Bernstein’s humble beginnings (and his close friendship with fellow conductor David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer)), dramatically flying through corridors before momentarily settling on the vast emptiness inside New York’s Carnegie Hall ahead of Bernstein’s debut concert as conductor. From this flamboyant intro by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, audiences see Bernstein for who he is – a dreamer with high ambitions.

This ambition doesn’t falter when he meets Felicia, a Costa Rican-Chilean actress who aspires to make a name for herself on Broadway. Her dreams of success echo those of Bernstein. Yet, their instantaneous chemistry and banter also include words of encouragement – they grow while bringing (and bigging) each other up to form what people may consider a match made in heaven. But while Bernstein aims for bigger and better things, Felicia understands the societal limits to her aspirations as a woman. Hence, she manages her career as a wife and mother to the couple’s three children. This commitment highlights an unspoken understanding that family will come first, so when Bernstein indulges in extramarital relationships, she doesn’t compromise her need for discretion for the sake of their children – reinforcing herself as the rock in their partnership.

Around this part of Maestro, Cooper and Josh Singer’s screenplay falters in consistency. For some audiences, the second act sees a slower and slightly sombre tone that allows a slight reprieve from the breezy, sharp-witted banter at the beginning of the relationship, ultimately creating a misstep for the narrative and pace. This results in a sense of emotional catch-up to remind viewers of the charm of the relationship with mixed results, especially when they slowly become lost amid Bernstein’s popularity. One scene, during a Thanksgiving parade, sees their tempers flare but unfortunately lacks fire.

However, their relationship is abundantly romantic – At one point, shortly after their meeting, Felicia remarks that Bernstein “is afraid of being alone,” and seeing him crumble towards the emotionally charged climax, it is hard to disagree. Cooper and Culligan’s chemistry is full of class and charm and buoyed by their impeccable performances. Mulligan, in particular, is beautiful in her performance as Felicia – a smokey-voiced, determined woman with an air similar to Katherine Hepburn.

In his second directorial feature, Cooper is like Bernstein – there is a vision that he wants to convey that pulls on the heartstrings and aims for the stars, and in some ways, he succeeds with Maestro. This sweeping romance sings of the previously mentioned timelessness as the narrative captures the carefree and more challenging times in the Bernsteins’ marriage. Yet regardless of everything that happens, they continue to face obstacles and celebrate triumphs together. This is epitomised during a soaring orchestral concert that sees Bernstein in his element, and his skill and love of music emanates through his passionate performance – and with Felicia in the wings. 

Maestro can be seen as another biopic about a strong man whom an even stronger woman supports. There are some compelling moments, and Mulligan again marks herself as a notable awards contender, but the irregularity in the screenplay and tone causes it to fall short of greatness. 

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