Bel Canto: Film Review

I love Julianne Moore and I’d usually say she can play any role but I’m not convinced that’s the case with Bel Canto, an uneven romance drama based on the 2001 novel of the same name by Ann Patchett.

Inspired by the 1996-7 Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Peru, the film follows Japanese businessman Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe) as he flies to an unnamed South American country to attend a party in his honour at the vice president’s home. During the party, a group of rebels break into the house intending to take the President hostage. As he is not there, they decide to hold the rest of the party guests hostage, including famous American opera singer Roxane Coss (Moore). The film follows them as they spend the next several months as hostages, focussing on the development of a relationship between Coss and opera enthusiast Hosokawa, despite the language barrier, and between his translator Gen (Ryo Kase) and young rebel Carmen (Maria Mercedes Coroy).

Bel Canto is very weird tonally. It tries to be both serious – the hostage situation – and light-hearted – the fun they have as newfound friends – with some sentiment, whimsy, light comedy, and romance thrown in. I just didn’t really know what it wanted to be. A hostage romance is a weird mix of genres but that’s the most accurate way to describe the film.

Bel Canto took a while to find its groove and for me to find something to invest in. For a good chunk of time I was aware that I was just watching the events unfold rather than being involved in them, and that’s probably because, after the hostage scare, not much happens and it’s pleasant but kinda dull. I was waiting for some exciting developments.

If you think that this is going to be some political hostage thriller then you’d be way off base. Once the hostages and rebels have settled into their routine, the film becomes about them developing friendships and overcoming differences to find common ground. This was nice to watch but I didn’t care so much. I truly became invested in it once the relationships began to blossom, although I cared more for Gen and Carmen’s than Coss and Hosokawa’s. I didn’t realise how involved I’d become until the shocking ending.

Moore is a great actress and she has the Oscar to prove it but she was too big for the part. She has too much star power, so when she’s ‘singing’ you know it’s not her – it’s Renee Fleming – and it’s hard to take those scenes seriously because I couldn’t accept that it was her as her lip syncing wasn’t quite good enough. It was almost there – but not quite – and it made me feel awkward for her. She looked the part the majority of the time though as her character is supposed to be this big global celebrity. Also, she is very melodramatic and OTT at the end and I sniggered when I should have been moved.

She’s not in it as much as you’d think. It’s very much split those four ways, and Gen and Carmen’s story was much more interesting. Gen, as the translator, interacts the most with everyone and he was my favourite. Wanatabe was reliably excellent and there was also top support from Sebastian Koch as a hostage negotiator whose voice really sounded like Liam Neeson‘s.

Bel Canto is an odd one. Patchett’s novel was a best seller and won major prizes so perhaps the story translates better on the page than on the screen. It was a pleasant enough watch but it had a confusing tone and an unconvincing performance by Moore.

In selected cinemas Friday 26th April

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