Director: Paul Weitz
Cast: Julianne Moore, Ken Watanabe
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“Are you sure they won’t shoot? Not everybody likes opera.” That’s Roxane Coss (Julianne Moore), a famous soprano who has accepted an unlikely gig, and soon comes to regret it. The job? Entertain a party hosed by a Japanese tech titan, Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe), which is taking place at the stately home of a Latin American nation’s Vice-President. She’s a serious artist and they’re just very wealthy, but they all find themselves bound together when guerrillas storm the soiree, taking them all hostage.
If it sounds like a tense, low-key thriller, you’re half right: the film, based on the novel by Ann Pratchett, has a decent line in stripped-down action, with conflict erupting in short, sharp bursts that make a striking impact. But the other half of the movie can’t decide what to be, dabbling in the burgeoning romance between Hosokawa and Coss, toying with the social divisions of the unnamed country and occasionally trying on the lofty theme of music being a universal tonic for the soul.
And so Paul Weitz and Anthony Weintraub’s script stumbles from one key to another, only occasionally sounding in tune. Moore is, as you’d expect, majestic as the opera singer, playing Coss with a haughty pride but without overdoing it, while Watanabe strikes up some chemistry with her as the chess-loving, music-appreciating businessman. But the rest of the cast are given little to do, with most of the supporting ensemble simply left as two-dimensional stock types with contrived reasons to bond with each other.
There are some endearingly earnest moments involving various characters learning to sing or play piano, but Moore’s lip-syncing (soprano Renée Fleming provides Roxane’s singing voice) never looks convincing enough – an unfortunate misstep that only accentuates the artificial vibe of this shallow number. A sharp final crescendo can’t make up for a middle passage that drifts into tedium just when the story needs an injection of feeling and pace. The result is a disappointing waste of an impressive cast and an intriguing premise – a surprise, given that Paul Weitz has strong classical musical credentials, after co-creating Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle. Bel Canto has a heartfelt message woven into its melody, but while it might have all the right notes, they don’t come out in the right order.