According to this very film blog, it has been more than a calendar year since I last saw Julianne Moore in a movie (Wonderstruck, if you were curious). I think we can all agree that this is far too long to go without enjoying one of Hollywood’s most talented stars, and even though Bel Canto hasn’t arrived on British screens with much, if any, fanfare at all, I’ve always got time to spare to spend with this particular lady.
The film, based on a 2001 prize winning novel by Ann Patchett, tells that story of a hostage situation that takes place in the mansion of a South American Vice President. Distinguished guests including opera singer Roxane Coss (Julianne Moore) and Japanese industrialist Katsumi Hosowaka (Ken Watanabe) are detained at the hands of a group of guerrilla fighters led by Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta), demanding the release of their political prisoner comrades.
If that synopsis sounds a little bit dry to you, that’s because it pretty much is. The film is a single location drama that, whilst perhaps offering a slightly different take on the kinds of hostage negotiation films that we might be more used to, doesn’t really manage to get going until the final twenty or so minutes. A true ensemble piece, the detained party and the guerrilla party, over time, come to find friendships and understandings with one another on a personal level as tensions and negotiations heighten on a political level. As is the case with a lot of novel to screen adaptations, it really feels like a lot of the literary and narrative nuance of this story has been lost in translation and fallen victim to a tight running time. The audience are taken on a pretty brisk tour of several key characters, all making different connections with the ‘enemy’, and one certainly gets the sense that the climax of the novel when all of these connections are put to the ultimate test is much more poignant and hard hitting on the page than it turns out to be on the screen.
It’s very clear that the film’s story is one that wants to examine the ‘faces behind the masks’ in terms of guerrilla warfare, building bridges and searching for humanity, asking the audience to examine who the bad guys in any given political situation really are. Ultimately, perhaps those core themes and messages are hammered home a little too overtly, and it results in making the picture feel a little bit cheesy and predictable rather than tense and affecting.
I came for Julianne Moore, and all things considered I think I probably stayed for Julianne Moore as well. As opera singer caught up in the crossfire Roxane Coss, Moore brings a lot of cinematic star quality to her scenes, although if I’m being completely honest it does feel like the story takes a misstep focusing on her rather than on the more interesting elements of the guerrilla and political side. She has a natural grace and charisma that works extremely well with the character, but I will say that Moore’s lip syncing to the operatic talents of soprano Renée Fleming certainly wouldn’t cut it on RuPaul’s Drag Race. She certainly brings a lot of presence to the film, even if I’m sure that the story was best served by having her as a leading character.
With an ensemble so large it’s impossible to take note of every single actor, but arguably the film’s strongest asset is the overall performance of its stacked cast. Ken Watanabe is great as the strong, silent, pensive, protective type, positioned as a fan turned love interest for Moore. Special mention to Ryo Kase and Maria Mercedes Coroy who play out a hostage/hostage taker romance that provides some of the more tender moments of the plot, along with Sebastian Koch and Tenoch Huerta who also enjoy a double act dynamic of their own as key hostage negotiator and lead hostage taker. It’s clear that these various one on one relationships would fit very neatly in to the chapter structure of a novel, but something about having to flit from one private situation to the other so rapidly in a 90 minute film makes the whole thing start to feel a little bit soap opera-esque.
Overall, Bel Canto is pretty much the definition of a textbook mediocre film. Elevated by the performances of a handful of key actors, namely Julianne Moore and anyone who happens to be playing opposite her in the moment, this political hostage drama isn’t going to last long in the memory and doesn’t pack quite as much punch as it thinks it does. In a couple of months that feel more high quality than usual at this time of year, you shouldn’t feel bad about skipping this one in favour of something else.