blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Amadeus (1984, Milos Forman)

It’s been long enough since I last saw Amadeus I forgot the narrative face-plant of the epilogue. The film objectifying the suffering of nineteenth-century psychiatric hospital “patients” is bad enough, but the way the film ignores it’s spent the second half of the nearly three-hour film away from narrator F. Murray Abraham… Well. It doesn’t go well, dragging Amadeus down in what ought to be its victory lap.

Albeit a victory lap all about Mozart’s death. The film’s way too enthusiastic about Abraham’s performance, which is fantastic, but it’s better in the flashback than the old age makeup bookends. And Amadeus, despite the title and the magnificent, meticulous directing Forman does with Tom Hulce (as Mozart), tries its damndest to convince everyone Abraham’s character, a never-will-be composer who engineers the downfall of Hulce as an affront to God, is the lead. And Abraham is the lead in the first half of the picture; the film opens with Vincent Schiavelli (playing Vincent Schiavelli) finding boss Abraham in the middle of a suicide attempt. They take Abraham to the hospital, where he recuperates, and a young priest (Richard Frank) comes to hear his confession.

Frank thinks Abraham is exaggerating or lying when he tells everyone he meets how he killed Mozart; the rest of the film is just Abraham convincing Frank (and the audience).

The first half tracks Abraham’s initial encounters with Hulce, who comes to Vienna as an unhappy upstart wunderkind who wants to drink, bed, wed, and write great music. Abraham’s boss, the Emperor—Jeffrey Jones (who’s really good; shame he’s an actual monster in real life)—takes on Hulce over the objections of his musical advisers, Charles Kay, and Patrick Hines. Lots of Amadeus is Kay and Hines acting like old fuddy-duddies while Hulce increases the artistic potential of opera; Abraham watches from the sidelines, manipulating all he can, simultaneously hating and envying Hulce.

The second half is all about Hulce’s financial and personal fizzling as he attempts greater and greater compositions. Elizabeth Berridge plays Hulce’s wife, and the film tracks their adorable, if problematic, courtship. Things come to a head for the couple when Roy Dotrice, as Hulce’s father (who trained him to be the great musician), comes to live with them. Dotrice is either miscast or the part is wrong; Hulce is both devoted and terrified of disappointing his father, except Dotrice and Hulce are utterly flat together. There’s no indication Dotrice is impressed with Hulce’s compositions; he is just displeased with Hulce’s extravagant lifestyle in general and Berridge in particular.

Given the whole second half is about Abraham exploiting Hulce’s relationship with Dotrice to slowly drive Hulce mad… it’d help if Dotrice were better. His portrait does more heavy lifting than Dotrice ends up doing acting.

While the first half has Abraham eventually inserting himself into Hulce’s life through Berridge at one point, in the second half, he’s mostly distant. He’s gifted Hulce and Berridge a maid (an excellent Cynthia Nixon), and Nixon reports back to Abraham, which gives the film the narrative excuse for Abraham acting on information he can’t know, but it’s dramatically inert.

Then Abraham finds himself forced to assist Hulce in his creative process, and Amadeus, pardon the expression, truly sings. The film finally gets Abraham and Hulce, who it’s been juxtaposing since jump, together on screen, and it’s magic.

Then the film punts it for the finish.

While Abraham’s great, Hulce is better. Neither exactly gets to verbalize what’s going on with their characters, with Abraham’s narrations all about intentionally wronging God and snuffing out one of His brightest angels, and Hulce unable to verbalize what he’s going through. It comes out in the music.

Besides Dotrice, the acting is universally outstanding. Berridge is sympathetic and adorable. Simon Callow shows up as the working-class musical theater owner who convinces Hulce to try to write for the people instead of the royalty. He’s good.

Technically, the standout is Michael Chandler and Nena Danevic’s editing. Absolutely superb cutting, whether toggling from present to past, staged opera to dramatics, whatever they’re cutting, Chandler and Danevic do a marvelous job. Forman’s direction is good but better in terms of directing the actors than the composition. Forman and cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek do a fine job, and there are some excellent sequences (mostly involving Hulce in his descent); the cutting is always what makes them so special.

Amadeus is often breathtaking, beautiful work, with Hulce, Abraham, and those editors particularly excelling.

One response to “Amadeus (1984, Milos Forman)”

  1. I consider AMADEUS to be one of the greatest films ever made. It’s so well made and the soundtrack is brilliantly interwoven into the story. The director’s cut adds some crucial scenes that makes the story more fluid. Why they were ever cut in the first place is just baffling…
    You are absolutely right in your assessment that Hulce’s performance is superior to that of Abraham. Hulce completely gave himself to the character and never overplayed his scenes despite portraying a flamboyant personality.
    I, too, adored Jeffrey Jones performance. He was so proper and stiff but I looked forward to every scene with him. Jones was also cast in Forman’s VALMONT. Anytime I see him in a film, I’m reminded of the poor choices he made in his private life.
    The only quip I have with this film is Cynthia Nixon’s casting. I greatly disliked her performance and felt that she was very out-of-place.
    Otherwise, unaltered accents and all, this film is a masterpiece.

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