Producer: Rosilyn Heller, Gabriela Bacher, Danny Krausz and Christian Angermayer
Director: Bernard Rose
Writer: Bernard Rose
Stars: David Garrett, Jared Harris, Christian McKay, Joely Richardson, Andrea Deck, Veronica Ferres, Helmut Berger and Olivia d'Abo
Studio: Freestyle Releasing
Classical music lovers may be tempted to check out “The Devil’s Violinist,” Bernard Rose’s take on the old tale about Niccolo Paganini having sold his soul to Satan for his unmatched dexterity on his instrument. The advice from this quarter is: don’t give in—the florid, hysterical (and far from historical) pseudo-biographical movie about the famous violinist isn’t worth it.
Violinist David Garrett plays the tortured musician, and his performances—which include the final Caprice on which Rachmaninoff later based his famous Rhapsody and Paganini’s elaborate version of “God Save the King”—are the high points. Unfortunately, while Garrett is a virtuoso on the violin, as an actor he leaves much to be desired. Perhaps it was the realization that his lead actor’s line readings and reactions were so terribly amateurish that led Rose, who served as cinematographer as well as director, to adopt a frenetic hand-held visual style that requires as few long scenes of him as possible. Unfortunately, it also afflicts much of the picture with spastic, jerky visuals that are more irritating than impressive, despite the efforts of production designer Christoph Kanter, art director Christine Caspari, set decorator Johann Wagner and costume designer Birgit Hutter to fashion a convincing period look.
One shouldn’t be too hard on Garrett, however; Rose’s script does him no favors. As with his screenplay for “Immortal Beloved,” which portrayed Beethoven’s life through an inquiry into what woman might have been the object of his obsessive love, Rose goes the melodramatic route in dealing with Paganini, presenting the violinist initially as a tortured genius who yearns for recognition that eludes him. Enter the mysterious Count Urbani (Jared Harris), who offers the dissolute young man international celebrity at no cost but for the surrender of his soul in the next life. The musician, being no believer in anything but dissipation, readily accepts.
Soon thereafter Paganini has become the nineteenth-century equivalent of a long-haired, strangely dressed, utterly egotistical rock star, over whom all the ladies swoon. Urbani caters to his every whim, even as his propensity to gamble strains their financial circumstances. He’s instrumental not only in arranging a potentially lucrative engagement in England through comically rumpled promoter John Watson (Christian McKay) but seeing to it that Paganini gets to Britain and ensuring his success there—not only by cultivating the press, led by Ethel Langham (Joely Richardson) a red-haired spitfire, but by manipulating the efforts of morals protestor Primrose Blackstone (Olivia d’Abo) to their benefit. Urbani is far less positive a force when it comes to Paganini’s romance with Watson’s daughter Charlotte (Andrea Deck), which he tries to derail.
None of the actors acquit themselves well, all apparently encouraged by Rose top give over-the-top performances, perhaps to make sure that neophyte Garrett would be kept in their shade as much as possible. Of course with Harris, it’s difficult to imagine that he could ever manage anything other than a full-throated turn; subtlety seems not to be in his thespian vocabulary. But McKay’s befuddled Watson and Richardson’s frizzy-haired newswoman aren’t far behind.
It’s understandable that admirers of Paganini’s music would find the chance to see a film about the man who practically invented the modern idea of the travelling virtuoso (serving as a model for Liszt in the process) irresistible. But “The Devil’s Violinist” turns out to be a Faustian bargain in more ways than one—not just in terms of its frankly ridiculous plot, but in terms of the compromises of taste one has to make in order to swallow it at all. Of course, Paganini was a pretty flamboyant showman, and so perhaps Rose’s extravagantly lurid take on him is justifiable. But that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable.