Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May:
YIN: Bohemian Rhapsody
Always leave them wanting more.
As true a statement for a sellout show by the seminal band Queen as it is for the biopic that chronicles their trials and tribulations. The film’s garnered some mixed reactions across the interwebs, but love it or fault it, the underlying consensus is that people left the theatre wanting more. But does that burden lie on the audience or the filmmakers?
The film has had a loooonnnnggg journey to the screen, running through multiple writers, directors, and stars—the most well-known of which was Borat’s Sasha Baron Cohen’s take on the role. None of these incarnations were ever realized, seemingly because not everyone could agree on what and how to tell the story of one of the most beloved, iconic, and ground-breaking musical ensembles to have ever rocked this Earth. So is it any wonder that the end result won’t please everyone?
I can, at the very least, say it pleased the hell out of me.
But I’ll be the first to admit that I come in with a lot of bias. I’m of a particular age to have been enthralled by the band and their particular kind of magic. Not only is their music still running through my playlists today, but the band in inexorably tied to another great love of my life, Highlander (readers to this site will undoubtedly relate). Freddie Mercury, in particular, is the greatest rock vocalist to have ever graced a stage, in my humble opinion. So I’ve been shaking with anticipation to see this film, and have been following its on-again/off-again development for years.
But I’m not naïve enough to think that 2.5 hours is enough to cover everything for a man and a band so rich in lore. As a screenwriter, I understand the difficulty of such an enterprise, and I found the take here an intriguing one. The film is, unshockingly, Freddie-centric, told very much through what occurs to and around him. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the contributions of the other three members of the group were acknowledged. No, we don’t see much of their private lives, much of their personal hopes and dreams and lives outside the band. And as much as I’d love to explore all that, the filmmakers know that ultimately, there can be only one (yeah, I went there!). The focus was always going to be on the lead, and remaining band members Brain May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon seem to respect that, to a point. Each member, almost in turn, is shown providing significant influence on the music and the creation of the band’s mythos. In a battle to steal spotlight from the likes of Freddie Mercury, it’s an impressive feat and not one to be overlooked.
But as we must, we turn to that brightest of shooting stars. The movie tracks Freddie from his start as Farrokh Bulsara, Heathrow baggage handler and seemingly perpetual disappointment to his father through to his cemented status as rock god at Queen’s arguably greatest performance, the 1985 Live Aid concert. The movie itself might be considered a rock opera, as the music truly drives the film, ushering the characters along like a sonic river. And while it certainly does its best to humanize each individual, there is a heightened aspect to the film, as if careful to pay into the legend as much as the reality.
This seems to be where much of the criticism is aimed, and there’s some justification in the uproar. This is not a grounded, warts-and-all revelation, but a tribute offering some behind the scenes insight into the world of Queen and the inner life of its frontman. It’s a choice, and it’s not going to sit well with everyone. But looking at it from a higher level, it may have been a smart move. The lust for salacious details about his life was one of Freddie’s most dogging issues, and one that he had no real wish to satisfy. And therefore, offering only enough to satiate certain audiences while also taking care to exalt the legend might be seen as playing it safe, but I would argue that—in this case—it works well in the grand scheme.
That being said, there are issues to be taken. When it comes to that juiciest nugget of Freddie’s sexuality, the movie makes a few flat statements and chooses not to delve deep. The film addresses his bisexuality in strictly binary terms, first through his initial relationship with Mary Austin and then through a series of men leading to his final relationship with Jim Hutton. There’s practically no indication of an openness between the two extremes, as encapsulated in a pivotal scene in which Freddie reveals his bisexuality to Mary, who responds that he is simply “gay.” The scene has left many angry at what feels like a simplification, if not an outright dismissal of the truth. And while in that moment I felt the same, it dawned on me that any other reaction by Mary might have been anachronistic at that time. Her lack of understanding seems plausible in that climate. However, it would not and does not excuse the portrayal of Freddie as simply “gay” from that point on, and that is a definite disservice to the man. Perhaps the filmmakers succumbed to the same fear that plagued Freddie’s time, fear of something they cannot quite grasp, or fear of how audiences would take the truth. But if the movie, and the band’s legacy, contains a message, it is that you cannot let fear hold you back. It’s a shame the powers that be here could not rise to that same challenge.
That being said, the film does work on many other levels, as it strives for a visceral extravaganza rather than a sequence of narrative details. Traversing a decade of creativity, celebration, chaos, and conflict, the creators choose to offer vignettes and snippets that highlight the journey, and naturally some of the specifics become combined or even lost in their entirety. Still, it succeeds in offering a full picture of the experience, through both the laughter and the tears intrinsic to it.
The largest component of this is, of course, the actors who breathe life into these legends. When Cohen left the project, I remember rattling my brain to come up with a perfect alternative, and the choice of Rami Malek could not have been more on point. Malek already has much of the look (if a bit short), and definitely the background both ethnically and artistically. He inhabits Freddie as much as portrays him, transforming himself physically and emotionally. As with most fine actors, Malek chooses to focus on Freddie’s flaws and his humanity, finding the man under the legend. But it’s also possible he and/or the writers) take it a bit too far, as the joyous gregariousness, while certainly there, is given a backseat to the tragic loneliness of his existence. Freddie’s sexuality, in particular, is too often hidden, almost shameful, and the source of much of his inner and outer conflict. And while there most assuredly were elements of that in Freddie’s life, how much of it dominated, and how much of Freddie’s life was spent in search of his true self and true happiness, may be a matter of interpretation here that not will agree with. Still, there’s no denying the genius of Malek’s performance, and I can absolutely see accolades raining down on him come awards season.
And while the rest of the cast felt absolutely perfect for each of their roles, Gwilym Lee was a standout for me as Brian May (no relation). Not only did he seem to mold himself perfectly into the look, but provided a strong presence that balanced, even countered Malek’s Freddie. You could feel Lee as a legitimate leader to the group, a voice of sage authority and exuberance while also deadly serious about his artistic craft. He acted often as the focal point of the issues between Freddie and the rest, and Lee makes the absolute most of his screentime by stealing as much spotlight as he can.
Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazzello are relegated to third and fourth fiddle as Roger Taylor and John Deacon, respectively, but indeed are given moments to shine, and both actors offer their support with skill and grace.
But truly, Allen Leech’s Paul Prenter overshadows as the snake that poisons the comradery of the group. I’m impressed with Leech mostly because I hated that character so much. His duplicitous vileness was so effective that it can only be a compliment. I rooted for his booting throughout the film, and he served as an effective foil for our heroes. Likewise, when Aaron McCusker arrives on scene as Jim Hutton, he provides a perfect counterpoint, the man we cheer for Freddie to end up with, one who finally understands and supports him as a man, not just a rock star. McCusker also layers in a confidence and self-assuredness that provides the template that we wish for Freddie throughout his struggles. And in a stroke of meta-brilliance, bringing in Mike Meyers as a fictional record exec disparaging the brilliance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” brought a head-banging nod of glee.
But as one of only a handful of females in the film, Lucy Boynton bears a lot on her shoulders as the beleaguered Mary. She does an impressive job, struggling to love the man she feels she cannot, while still being there as much as she can to support him. Their story carries much of the film, and Boynton skillfully embodies not only the love, but perhaps the misunderstanding at the heart of those surrounding Freddie.
The film ends with a beautiful summation that truly captures its spirit. The Live Aid concert represents the redemption of each character, the joy of this misfit family, and the masterful skill of the band. It also embodies the beauty, tragedy, excitement, and epic nature of the story. As Queen rocks out its Wembley crowd, so do we in the theatre stamp and sing and cry. And it is that emotional rollercoaster that defines the film. Sure, it has its flaws and maybe isn’t the most historically accurate biopic to date. But it doesn’t fail to entertain, to elicit a plethora of thoughts and feelings about a group we only think we know even after 40 years. With magnetic performances every bit as enthralling as the band itself, a soundtrack to lift your spirit and make you cheer for its creators, and a tone that sets one foot in reality, and one foot in an ethereal fairytale, Bohemian Rhapsody is sure to offer everyone something. And after so long, so many stops and starts, and even the loss of its director Bryan Singer during production, to be given such a loving tribute to these legends and see Freddie rock us out one last time, I feel satisfied, but understand that not everyone will. But then again, we want it all, don’t we?
YANG: Outlaw King
It’s inevitable that comparisons will be made between this latest Netflix release and Mel Gibson’s epic, Braveheart. That classic film included a powerful, heartfelt side story of Robert the Bruce, would-be king of Scotland, and his inner turmoil which caused him to betray William Wallace, yet ultimately take up his cause to lead his people to freedom. Since that film ended 23 years ago, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the fulfillment of numerous promises to finally tell Robert’s story and give him his own due. And now, Hell or High Water director David Mackenzie has been given the chance to do just that . . .
. . . and it was not worth the wait.
Outlaw King struggles on just about every level. It’s definitely no Braveheart, despite stealing much of its cast and style. The film certainly spared little expense in production, with several gorgeous, sweeping shots of the Highlands and huge, exquisitely detailed sets. As a leg up on Gibson, the film clads its characters in far more period-appropriate attire and weaponry. But the scale filling the lens is too often diminished by the lack of sight of the director. This is, disappointingly, much more a tale of what happens than exploring what these events meant to the people who experienced them. Decisions are generally given lip service and moved on, such as Robert’s ill-explained decision to break his promise of fealty to Edward after learning of Wallace’s death. Characters asking “why should I follow you” aren’t given much of an answer aside from “that’s how it’s supposed to go.” And the ending is so absurd that I literally stood up and screamed, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” While we are given a fair assessment of what happened, we aren’t given much insight into why we should care about it.
In no way is this more obvious than in Pine’s portrayal of Robert the Bruce himself. Had Pine not completed a successful collaboration with Mackenzie on Hell, I can’t imagine he’d ever been given such a role. To be clear, I’m a fan of his. I think he’s got a charm, charisma, and underrated talent that perfectly suits the youthful bad-boy with a heart of gold he excels at. But that’s not Robert. And in his attempt to circumvent his own type, Pine plays it so straight as to practically devoid Robert of any hint of magnetism. With tormented looks into the distance and a soft voice that nearly lulls you to sleep, it’s hardly the gravitas of a king, let alone one whose resolve is meant to unite a nation into bloody war. Whether it was a choice of his own or of his director, it falls the thud of a blunt battleax.
But we can’t lay the blame solely at Pine. Five writers are credited on the movie, and you can feel the disconnection in the narrative. The titular hero isn’t given much inner dimension. Little time is spent on how Robert really feels about being pulled in so many directions, or the true burden of leadership, or how he uses his cleverness to outwit the English and to inspire his men—things that endeared Wallace to so many in Gibson’s film. Instead, we’re given soundbites and those worrisome, far-flung gazes. The story simply jumps both narratively and visually from scene to scene, action to action, rarely pausing to offer commentary or perspective.
To be fair, that isn’t true of every character. Two actually stand out to me for their development. The first is in Robert’s arranged young bride Elizabeth, played by relative newcomer Florence Pugh. Though ultimately a relatively minor character, we are provided a wealth of insight into her well of strength and determination to protect and aide her new husband and family. She warms to Robert far more through her own estimations than through Robert’s kind but distant treatment. In fact, the scene where she finally accepts him is one of the biggest misses of the film, an opportunity to have Robert match her sincerity and vulnerability squandered in place of his wooden appreciation. Yet, throughout the film, Elizabeth’s intelligence and emotion shine through. Despite the choppy ending, I’d argue she had the cleanest throughline of the bunch.
A close second, however, goes to an even more secondary character. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick Ass) plays James Douglas, a young lord derided and enraged by the English crown. What sets Douglas apart is that fury, which manifests itself in a berserker bloodlust not unlike Stephen, the “mad” Irishman (David O’Hara), in Braveheart, though in this case quite seemingly historically accurate. While Douglas’s arc may not have much depth, it is clear, consistent, and understandable as we feel the anger, frustration, and intensity of the man. As far as characters in this film go, it’s as significant a development as it gets.
I said that the movie struggles on just about every level, and outside of the slapdash writing, wooden characters, and lack of depth, the film falters on a basic level I hardly ever address: editing. I had to check IMDB for editor Jake Roberts’s track record, and no surprise, he edited Hell as well. There’s enough experience listed there to assume he knows better than to use nothing but jump cuts throughout the entire film. If you want to be Braveheart, to give the scenes some weight and scope, throw in a freaking fade once in a while, will ya?! The film has a choppy, jarring feel that lends it more to watching siloed chapters than a cohesive whole. But given that Mackenzie’s idea of skillful camera movement seems limited to circling the actors over and over, I can hardly be surprised the editing holds the same dearth of imagination. Likewise, the music is sparse and forgettable, with far too many scenes crumbling without the audio support necessary to elevate the barren visage.
After 23 years of waiting, Outlaw King falls well short of not only our expectations for the character, but of a watchable film in general. Its lack of characterization leaves a grand story feeling hollow, and aside from some gory fight scenes, there’s little visual stimulation to invest the audience (and yes, that’s despite the brief glimpse of Pine’s genitals, which seems to be getting most of the film’s press). If you’re curious about the historical events surrounding Robert and the wars for independence, you could do worse, but I’d probably recommend one of the many documentaries available (even on YouTube). And if you’re looking for your Scottish sword fix, I’d suggest rewatching Braveheart, Rob Roy, or (naturally) Highlander, and letting this one hopefully fade into obscurity until Robert’s tale is given its proper dramatic due.