Niccolò Paganini was the Robert Johnson of classical music. His ferocious technique and unparalleled popular success were seriously considered the fruits of a Faustian bargain. The talent was always there. Getting people to listen was the hard part. In fact, it was such a tricky proposition, the materialist maestro gladly makes that deal in Bernard Rose’s “The Devil’s Violinist.”
Sulfur has not numbed the Mephistophelean Urbani’s nose for talent. He immediately recognizes the gifts of an aspiring Don Juan violinist scuffling in grubby music halls. He pledges to guarantee Paganini’s career and serve as his personal servant in this world, if Paganini agrees to do the same for him in the next.
Shortly after signing a contract he probably should have read more closely, Paganini’s career ignites. He becomes a figure of dark romance and veiled controversy, like an early 19th century heavy-metal rock star.
Eventually, Paganini gets bored with it all, spending long hours brooding in the tub, doing his best to resemble “The Death of Marat.” Fortunately, Paganini somewhat snaps out of his lethargy when he accepts upstart promoter John Watson’s offer to produce and conduct his London debut concerts.
However, Paganini’s demands will stretch the limits of Watson’s resources. Met by a mob of moralizing progressive protesters, Watson and his diva mistress Elizabeth Wells are forced to quarter Paganini and Urbani in their home. Of course, Watson’s daughter Charlotte immediately catches Paganini’s eye, but she is not inclined to swoon over the maestro, at least not yet.
Jared Harris is delightfully sinister chewing on the scenery. Yet ironically, Urbani (who seems to be more of a minion than Old Scratch himself) is not infrequently portrayed as a more empathetic fellow than Paganini. Regardless, it is great fun watching him lurk and glower.
Violin prodigy and classical crossover artist David Garrett can certainly play. Acting is a little iffier. Perhaps the many scenes of his Paganini huddling in bed sheets in a state of near catatonia was a shrewd strategic decision on Rose’s part.
Fortunately, Harris has some terrific supporting players to engage with, including Christian McKay, unflaggingly earnest as Watson, as well as Joely Richardson suggesting Eliza Doolittle’s morally flexible cousin as tabloid music critic Ethel Langham.
In a way, “The Devil’s Violinist” reconciles the classy Jekyll films Rose has helmed, such as the Beethoven biopic “Immortal Beloved” and the superior Sophie Marceau version of “Anna Karenina,” with his Hydish scare fare, like “Candyman.”
For obvious reasons, he leans toward the former, depicting Urbani more as a Svengali than a figure of satanic horror. It works relatively well, despite Garrett’s awkwardness, which sometimes even feels fitting in context. Harris certainly does his thing, and Garrett’s musical chops are also quite cinematic.
Recommended for classical connoisseurs who appreciate a bit of uncanny garnish, “The Devil’s Violinist” opens this Friday, Jan. 30, in New York at the Quad Cinema.
The Devil’s Violinist
Director: Bernard Rose
Starring: David Garrett, Jared Harris, Joely Richardson
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Release date: Jan. 30
3 stars out of 5
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit www.jbspins.blogspot.com