Film Review – Bel Canto (2018)

Timing is everything. For a movie, it can be the difference between stellar success and crushing failure and for Bel Canto, released on Friday, it’s been crucial. Crucial to it simply getting made in the first place, even though the rights to make the film were snapped up back in 2002.

Ann Patchett’s original book was published back in 2001, just before the events of 9/11. It’s the story of a hostage crisis in an unnamed South American country but its sympathetic treatment of radical terrorists would have gone so much against the grain in the political climate of the time that it simply just had to wait. Now it gets its chance, a hostage drama served up with two helpings of romance on the side. A world famous opera singer (Julianne Moore) is employed to sing for a Japanese industrialist (Ken Watanabe) at a private gathering where, it’s hoped, he will sign on the dotted line to build a new factory bringing a boost to the country’s shaky economy. But it all goes pear shaped, with the guests taken hostage by a group of less than competent terrorists with noble intentions .

It’s a film with an international flavour. Moore sings – actually somebody else does, because the lip-synch is laughable – in Italian, Watanabe and his assistant both speak Japanese, most of the terrorists speak Spanish and a Red Cross negotiator oscillates between English, German and French, on top of most of the cast speaking English at one stage or another. So there are sub-titles, although at times we’re deprived of them when the terrorists are speaking, helping us into the hostages’ shoes. It takes a leaf out of Ben Affleck’s Oscar winning Argo, with both the audience and the hostages unable to decipher what’s being said.

The romantic elements of the film – the relationship between Watanabe and Moore, and also between his assistant and one of the terrorists – form the sub-plots. And sub is the operative word, because they are little more than a diversion. They could have provided a relief to the tension in the story, if there was any, but what is potentially a claustrophobic and frightening, if not terrifying, situation falls decidedly short. And the reason all comes back to timing again, but this time the timescale of the events. It’s difficult to tell how long the hostage situation actually lasts: certainly long enough for the media to start to lose interest, but that’s all the audience can work out and that lack of clarity really undermines and weakens the drama. It allows the hostages and their captors to develop a bond which, while bearing no resemblance to Stockholm Syndrome, raises thoughtful questions about their respective futures. But, nonetheless, it turns what should be a taut situation into something disappointingly lacklustre.

That the film is far from perfect is a disappointment, given that we’ve had to wait so long. There are too many characters in the frame, causing almost constant confusion and meaning that many of them end up under-developed. The time frame issue is a real problem, one that the film never gets close to overcoming and, in truth, the talents of the luminous Julianne Moore are hardly ever stretched. For the first third of the film, she plays a comparatively minor part, seemingly in just a supporting role to get bums on seats. That turns out not to be the case but, despite lending style and class to the film, this is not her most challenging role.

Bel Canto isn’t exactly bel. Visually, it’s an attractive film which poses some interesting questions but never digs deep enough to come up with some answers. The final feeling is one of waste – time wasted waiting for it to arrive and an opportunity wasted when it came to making a more complex, deeper and satisfying film.

Freda Cooper |★★ 1/2

Thriller, Drama | Cert: 15 | UK, 26 April (2019) | Vertigo Releasing | Dir. Paul Weitz | Julianne Moore, Ken Watanabe, Sebastian Koch, Christopher Lambert.