Reviewed by John Park
Among the never-ending stream of modern musical films, there were some hits, (Moulin Rouge, Hairspray) complete critical/financial flops (2009’s Fame and Rent) and those in between. (Evita, The Phantom of the Opera) But before you say “Oh no, not another flashy, camp, musical film”, Nine turns into a complex character study of one complicated film director.
Nine is based on an Italian masterpiece 8 ½ directed by Federico Fellini, which incidentally is based on Fellini himself. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido Contini, a troubled but once talented film director who is failing to write a single word for his script even when the costumes are being made, the sets are being built, and the film is supposed to be shot in ten days. His writer’s block is worsened by the complicated relationships he shares with the various women in his life. Day-Lewis’ Contini is not Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido in 8 ½ but is a more confused, burnt-out, and most importantly, is an original character that does not try to mimic the old version in any way.
To be honest, who wouldn’t be slightly distracted in his situation? He’s surrounded by his beautiful wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard), his seductive mistress Carla (Penélope Cruz), his muse Claudia (Nicole Kidman), his confidante Lilane (Judi Dench), Stephanie (Kate Hudson), a stunning reporter who wants to have a good lay with Contini more than anything else, memories of his Mamma (Sophia Loren), and a prostitute from his childhood, Saraghina (Stacey ‘Fergie’ Ferguson) who taught him the art of love-making. All of these characters are introduced in a spectacular opening sequence where the women’s relationships with Guido are briefly explained.
Reading the long list of fabulous actors can build up unwanted hype and expectations. We all know they can act full stop. Just between the eight of them they share seven Oscar wins and eleven further nominations. Cotillard gives a quiet but intense performance as the victim of Contini’s numerous affairs, her intense rendition of “Take it All” making the audience truly sympathise with the situation this woman is in, Cruz is overflowing with sex appeal, more so when she’s twisting and wrapping her body around ropes and curtains, Kidman blesses the screen with her angelic, beautiful presence etc… But the important factor is to remember that this is a musical and to ask the crucial question of whether they can sing. Well, of course they can.
The casting of Day-Lewis was considered to be an odd one when first announced. No-one knew whether he could sing or not, and no-one really knew whether he could be convincing as an Italian. But once again, he doesn’t disappoint and his performance is faultless. He surprises all of us when he proves that his singing is just as powerful and effective as his acting. He only sings a couple of songs, but they’re unforgettable ones. His scruffy appearance reflects his chaotic lifestyle and it’s not surprising that he’s struggling to write a script.
Hudson, although stuck with a character who doesn’t end up being too crucial, is given her moment to shine with probably one of the best and memorable songs in the film, “Cinema Italiano.” She sings and dances her heart out, as do the back-up singers/dancers. The music is immediately catchy, as is the electrifying choreography that Hudson handles perfectly.
A special round of applause however, must go to Ferguson, who arguably delivers the best musical number in the film. For those who have seen the trailers, the song “Be Italian” will be quite familiar. But just wait until you see the big picture, when the big screen and sound systems capture Ferguson’s bold, steady voice as well as the sexy, dangerous and captivating visuals. The song covers two very different timelines and styles. There’s Contini’s intimate black-and-white flashback of Saraghina teaching the ever-so enthusiastic boys about sex, and then there’s the more passionate, full-coloured (very effectively in red and black) scene of Saraghina, various other women, sand and tambourines. What’s more impressive is Fergie’s perfect transformation into her character. She gained something like eight kilos and with her push-up dress, messy hair and glaring eyes, she looks exactly like someone who successfully sells sex for a living, promising to fulfill all the hidden male fantasies.
Due to the large cast, some actresses aren’t given enough deserving focus. Loren, Dench and Kidman are all marvellous singers but are all underused. Giving each and every one of them the full attention would probably have brought the running time right up to the three-hour mark and could have been overly tedious. But it’s just not that easy to forget all about the three fabulous actresses after their stunning but brief appearances.
Nine is a sophisticated, dazzling, savvy musical. Rob Marshall delivers a more stylish, focused film than his previous musical effort Chicago. There is a noticeable lack of memorable songs, and it won’t be easy to hum the songs again outside the cinema but it’s hard to care when you can remember the astonishing choreography and faultless performances in a heart-beat.