Much heralded, the movie version of Nine hit big screens around the world in recent days and this Federico Fellini homage ticks quite a number of my boxes even if it is hard to see the production genuinely appealing to mass audiences and attracting the kind of Academy Award attention predicted by some of the critics.
Directed by Rob Marshall who successfully brought Kander & Ebb’s potent Chicago to cinemas in 2002, this presentation has some of the atmosphere of that work even if it lacks the barn-storming score. Like that earlier smash, Nine has to be regarded as a piece of musical theatre lifted, close to intact, from Broadway and expanded to fit the wider horizons of a celluloid venture.
It is hardly even a question of spotting the joins: around half the picture takes place on the sound stage of the famed Cinecitta studios outside Rome, in essence within the bounds of a proscenium arch, and, we might add, largely in the imagination of Guido Contini, the Fellini cipher, played by a convincing Daniel Day-Lewis.
Contini is in crisis as he plans Italia, a lavish, ambitious tale of a land governed by men who are driven by their women – mothers, wives, lovers, muses. The director, based on Fellini as he schemed his epic 8½, has lost confidence in his craft. He approaches the latest project, all set to run, scriptless and distracted as tensions with his producer, in his marriage and with his mistress leave him on the verge of nervous breakdown.
Such criss-crossed emotional wires are the perfect vehicle for dramatic set-pieces as a stellar female cast – lover Penelope Cruz, wife Marion Cotillard, costume designer Judi Dench, leading actress Nicole Kidman, mother Sophia Loren, journalist Kate Hudson and prostitute Fergie – lend a musical gloss to the psychological machinations and the artistic slump in Contini’s life.
Where Nine succeeds most is in the neurotic dealings of Day-Lewis’ main protagonist. Oft cast as the period Anglo, the actor immerses himself in the part with commendable vigour: the wardrobe, the trilby, the shades, the Alfa Romeo speedster and the ever-present cigarettes summon with conviction the Roman land of La Dolce Vita.
But the actor himself inhabits the role in more than a mere sartorial sense. The accent is authentic and without exaggerated strains of caricature, the intensity of the eyes is both piercing and sometimes compelling, and the occasional breaking smile – when he gently taunts the press ranks as the new production staggers and stumbles into life – paints a rounded if wounded personality.
Less hypnotic are the songs and the lyrics all too frequently jar. The compositions, principally credited to Maury Yeston, each have that hint of the lightly operatic – moving along the plot to an amorphous and frankly colourless palette. Only Hudson’s effervescent, go-go girl showstopper breaks that somewhat restricted mould.
Yet the extraordinary parade of women who grapple with these less than promising tunes actually bring a remarkable verve and passion to the process. It is the drama and the context that pulls you in rather than a blistering hook, an unforgettable refrain or a dazzling fragment of word-play.
So where does Nine sit on a scale of ten? Well, I have to say that this film is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts – as a musical extravaganza its soundtrack generally failed to deliver; as a dramatic cycle propelled by a string of engaging ensemble performances it held me quite rapt. So 7.5, not quite 8½, fits my personal bill.
To wander the back-streets of a main-house production – the script meetings, the on-set bust-ups, the costume fittings, the logistical difficulties of making life art – is fascinating to most of us; experiencing the behind-the-scenes badinage can be as intriguing as the stage or screen work that is ultimately set before the public.
But even if that off-stage, film-within-a-movie structure has less appeal for you, the evocation of the Italian capital in 1965, swinging almost as much as London and more effortlessly stylish, should be enough to keep fans of continental élan, and European art cinema at a particularly fertile moment, content.