In Review – The Iceman & Behind The Candelabra

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Last Friday saw a glut of American movies open on the UK theatrical circuit. Alongside the latest Will Smith vehicle, After Earth, two films from fairly different sides of the spectrum also reached cinemas. While both of these films are fully deserving of more thorough coverage, time is, unfortunately, an unforgiving beast.

In looking to Side Effects, director Steven Soderbergh’s last-feature-but-one, many, ourselves included, remarked that were rumblings of the American filmmaker’s purported retirement believable then this latest run of features would lead one to mourn the passing of a great talent. Behind The Candelabra, made for television but screening theatrically outside of the US, continues this trend of remarkable pictures wholly. A long-promised biopic of Liberace, focussing on the relationship between the piano-based performer and one-time beau Scott Thorson, Behind The Candelabra is a hugely moving and well-acted examination of love and celebrity.

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Shot through the haze of soft focus and glitter, Soderbergh’s aesthetic approach recalls a question asked of Rob Lowe’s memorable plastic surgeon in the film itself. Concerned about the effects of plastic surgery, Thorson, portrayed by Matt Damon, enquires as to whether he’ll be able to close his eyes. One can’t help but associate Thorson’s concerns with our own, when faced with the garish and overt visual code adopted by Soderbergh. This code is reflected in the faces of Soderbergh’s performers too. Damon’s fresh face makes for a profound comparison to the craggy, worn facade of Michael Douglas’ Liberace. Never is the stark contrast more clear than in the films many nude sequences, which place Damon’s professional wrestler-channeling physique next to Douglas’ frail body.

True to the title to which it has been bestowed, Behind The Candelabra is very much a story cut of behind the scenes. Comparisons to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights are there for the taking, although the reduced ambition of Soderbergh’s piece lends it the air of a more intimate picture like James Cox’s 2003 Wonderland, a film which saw Val Kilmer demythologise the John Holmes legend. One is also reminded of more unlikely fare; James Whale’s Frankenstein for one, and especially during the film’s opening act in which Thorson examines his blossoming relationship with Liberace. This is reinforced and encouraged by an eerie lack of music, which is absent for the entirety of the films opening act, bar the initial introduction of the subject of the film. It’s with the use of music that the film closes, in one of the most moving sequences seen all year.

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Not quite as successful is Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman, again a biopic, this time of mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski. Very much a star vehicle for Michael Shannon, one of the pre-eminent performers of the American screen, The Iceman falters around an impressive central performance. Supporting players are hit and miss. The ranks are filled with the likes of Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Stephen Dorff and, in a particularly unusual turn, David Schwimmer, who appears to be channeling former England football squad goalkeeper David Seaman. 

The film opens with a hugely engaging sequence, charting the first date between the film’s central protagonist and his future wife. Full of the hope one would expect of any such happening, this promising scene flips to reveal the murky underside of Kuklinski’s personal, as he kills a man in cold blood for daring to criticise his companion. Alas, the appealing tone of this opening salvo can’t help but give way to what is ultimately a bit of a po-faced washout. An intense soundtrack overwhelms the images and emotional beats. It’s a sparse movie, and one that feels dislocated in a number of ways; In Kuklinski we have a figure on which the emphasis is the now. We don’t see the world around him, nor the investigation that leads to his downfall. While the intention of such perspective is presumably to place the viewer within the mind-frame of the film’s protagonist one can’t help but find this contradicted by other goings-on in the film. We nary get a feel for the man, bar a couple of crowbarred in flashbacks which say very little. This is made all the more unfortunate given the impressiveness of Shannon’s performance.
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