So let us put to one side all that discussion about false noses and non Jewish actors playing Jewish roles. The man’s done a good job. He not only gives a good physical representation of the character but also captures his passion for his work and his life.
For Bernstein was a man of many parts. The film though concentrates on two. His long marriage to Costa Rican actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn (Carey Mulligan) and his devotion to music.
The energy of both character and actor are evident right from the beginning, when we move from the elderly Bernstein being interviewed about his life to the young man leaping from his bed to gallop out into the day. Bernstein’s youthful years in the forties are beautifully shot in period style black and white (cinematographer Matthew Libatique) and fluidly edited by Michelle Tesoro in a manner that enables the story to move seamlessly and sometimes magically from one scene to another. An example being Leonard’s first meeting with Felicia at a New York party, where they hit it off immediately. The couple then act out a classic love scene in the half light of a concrete shelter, which transforms into an empty theatre which then becomes a stage set in which the three sailors from Bernstein’s musical On the Town strut their stuff.
We see a lot of Leonard in the concert hall – from his debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1943, while still assistant conductor, then much later embracing one of his best known gigs, conducting the Mahler Resurrection Symphony at Ely Cathedral in 1973, by which time he had become famous for his flamboyant conducting style – teeth bared, head thrown back as though he is about to take off – that energy again – and interestingly here, even before taking his bow he goes into the wings to almost obliterate Felicia in a smothering bear hug.
Devoted though he was to her, the film is frank about Bernstein’s bi-sexuality and the problems it created. That first scene with the youthful Leonard shows him in bed with a young man. Later when a young couple are showing off their first born to him, he tells the small child, “I slept with both your parents.” And it is another liaison with a young man, which causes Felicia to leave him after a massive row, which like their youthful meeting is shot effectively and theatrically in one continuous take without the usual close ups.
When the story reaches the fifties and sixties, again the period is evoked, this time with bright technicolour and the fashions of the time. Mulligan gets to wear some lovely frocks. Both she and Cooper age very effectively as the years go by. Good though she is throughout the film, Mulligan is particularly moving in her final scenes where Felicia is dying of cancer.
Though it covers a lot of ground, Cooper’s film is not a comprehensive biopic. For that you would need a series. It is though big in scope. As a Netflix production it will soon be available on the telly. But it is worth trying to catch it on the big screen first.
Maestro is currently in select UK cinemas and will be available on Netflix from 20th December