‘Maestro’ review: Bradley Cooper’s controversial portrait of a flawed genius
Five years after A Star Is Born landed at the Venice Film Festival, Bradley Cooper is back on the Lido with his second film as director: an Oscar-baiting biopic of the legendary composer Leonard Bernstein. Filmed partially in black-and-white, and produced by Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, it’s a recipe for critical glory. However, all anyone can talk about is… the nose.
In order to portray the Jewish Bernstein, Cooper spends much of the film caked in make-up including a prosthetic sniffer, which has invited criticism for depicting anti-Semitic stereotypes. In response, the Bernstein family – who gave their blessing for their film – released a statement saying they were “perfectly fine” with Cooper’s creative choices.
As for the film itself, Maestro sets the stage for a performance that is so much larger than Bradley Cooper’s facial enhancements. It begins with his triumphant conducting debut as a last-minute replacement at Carnegie Hall, New York, and continues through his tumultuous marriage to actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). Cooper excels at portraying that first heady rush of love, and while A Star Is Born captured it via Lady Gaga’s beguiling gaze, Maestro achieves the same effect through a chorus of overlapping dialogue that flows with such a natural, giddy rhythm that it almost doesn’t seem scripted at all.
Like A Star Is Born, Maestro peters out after an astonishing first act that frontloads all of Cooper’s directing tricks. There’s “a price for being in Leonard’s orbit”, we’re told, and the extraordinary Mulligan bears the responsibility of conveying that price through Felicia’s silent exasperation. Nevertheless, Leonard and Felicia’s relationship is almost too convenient, even as it gets tangled by the former’s bisexuality and infidelity. The blistering pace also leaves little time to breathe, and the pair’s sudden reconciliation tees up a cloying finale that borders on emotional manipulation.
As a portrait of Bernstein himself, the film offers compelling yet frustratingly brief observations of a man whose life didn’t always align with his profession. The boundaries between his public and private life stopped existing as soon as a young Bernstein insisted on notating scores from an open bathroom. When a tired Bernstein wakes up to the fateful phone call that introduced him to Carnegie Hall, the frame is bathed in darkness, with enormous blackout curtains making it impossible to discern whether he’s in a bedroom or having a lie-in somewhere backstage. The contradictory lifestyles of a composer (solitary) and a conductor (performative) pull him in opposite directions.
There’s an apropos quote from Bernstein that kicks off Maestro via title card: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them.” True to its word, this is a film that doesn’t seek to explain Bernstein or his most complicated relationship. Instead, it keeps the viewer at arm’s length, leaving us with a glossy biopic of a man who remains an enigma until the very end.
- Director: Bradley Cooper
- Starring: Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Maya Hawke
- Release date: November 22 (in cinemas), December 20 (Netflix)