MAESTRO was the first of two films I watched today that were well directed and acted, but where the chosen subject matter was not worthy of the efforts taken. Basically this film can be summarised as "wife is cool with her husband's bisexuality until she isn't, but stays married anyways". I mean, okay. Domestic drama is okay I guess. And there's a lot of great dramatic acting showing this. But oh my god, with these performers, and this direction, it could've done so much more.
The film is written by, directed by, and stars Bradley Cooper of THE HANGOVER fame. He is making a very deliberate career handbrake-turn into wannabe auteur status by telling the story of Leonard Bernstein - acclaimed composer, conductor, educator, performer. What's interesting, and ultimately frustrating, is that he chooses to do so solely through the lens of Bernstein's marriage to the actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan - SHE SAID).
In a sense, this is a really interesting thing to do. Montealegre was apparently a significant artist in her own right. She was apparently drawn to Bernstein's genius and was progressive enough to accept him as bisexual and to tolerate his affairs as long as he was discreet. Until she wasn't. She stays, but explains it as a kind of sick joke of not knowing herself enough. She thought she was modern enough to not mind, but was actually more in need of Bernstein's attention than she had anticipated.
As for Bernstein, in Cooper's conception, his promiscuous bisexuality was merely another aspect of his greed for life in general. He wanted more of everything. He rejected people's expectations that he would focus on becoming "just" the first great American conductor, or another great American composer. He wanted it all. He wanted to compose a film score, or a broadway musical, or teach at Tanglewood, as much as he wanted to write a great orchestral work or conduct a great orchestra. And in this life of having it all, those around him were just squeezed out for time.
The tragedy of this film is that in this beautifully-acted, rendered domestic drama, we never see the wider social or political ramifications. Because for Leonard Bernstein his identity WAS political. Being Jewish, not anglicising one's name, playing in Palestine and then Israel, was indeed a political act. Being bisexual, indiscreetly so, was and arguably remains a political act. But Cooper isn't interested in that. Until he is. In a tonally jarring near-final scene we find an old, widowed, fat, sweaty Bernstein dancing in a 1980s nightclub with a far younger male student. Had I been watching a film about consensual bisexual affairs or a version of TAR? I felt blind-sided by this scene. I wished the film had been dealing in this stuff all along. But it hadn't, so why the left-turn now?
Still, there's a lot to like in this film, and I will for sure watch Cooper's next directorial venture. The first hour in particular is kinetic and assured, with real visual flair. Matthew Libatique's cinematography is as good as anything he's done since BLACK SWAN. And kudos to Cooper for getting Bernstein's physicality, voice and conducting style, not least thanks to some absolutely superb make-up and prophetic work. As for Mulligan, there's a single dramatic confrontation in the marital apartment that is a tour de force for both, but especially her. She is always excellent and especially so here. In smaller parts, I really liked Maya Hawke as their eldest child.
But if you're coming for Bernstein the musician you are going to be disappointed, as I was. We only truly see about seven minutes of him conducting near the end of the film. It's the finale of Mahler 2 and it's stunning to behold. Like Bernstein, I wanted more.
MAESTRO has a running time of 129 minutes and is rated R. It played Venice and London 2023 and will be released on December 20th on Netflix.