The Russian-French film by Radu Mihaileanu has received a sniffy ride from British critics, none more disdainful than the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, who dismissed it as ‘cheesy Europudding’ and clung to its icy French starlet, Mélanie Laurent, as his lifebelt in an ocean of schmaltz.
My own impression was heading down much the same alley once I saw a pair of hands that attempted to simulate conducting and a rom-com plot that left no cliché unturned. The story of a Bolshoi conductor, demoted to office cleaner because he refused to fire Jews and then exacting revenge by taking a fake Bolshoi orchestra to Paris, seemed too slight and contrived to sustain a full two hours.
But once past the early clichés, the film delivers an acrid commentary on a totalitarian system that turned into a gangster state, and on the way western nations collaborate with Russian robber barons. The oligarchs on screen sent a chill up my spine and I gave silent thanks that I do not work for a newspaper that is owned, as two British dailies are, by an unrepentant KGB man.
And when the demoted conductor, the sombrely defeatist Aleksei Guskov, gets to work over vodka with the icy French violinist, there was a real rush of emotion which, underpinned by the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, put a serious spike in my Kleenex shares. Mlle Laurent, as the violinist, is equally convincing: she was coached by the excellent Sarah Nemtanu.
The film, for all its vagaries, is more than just another rom-com. It tells a kind of truth, depicting classical music as it often can be – brutal, callous, humiliating, conciliatory, political and, just when you are ready to walk out on it, uplifting in the most unexpected ways. See what you think. Here’s how I described it on Front Row last night.
It goes on UK release this week.