Movie review: Barrymore

By Peter Calder

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Christopher Plummer is mesmerising as John Barrymore. Photo / Supplied
Christopher Plummer is mesmerising as John Barrymore. Photo / Supplied

By no means to be confused with the English television variety show star who sought refuge from his scandal-prone private life in this country, John Barrymore was a star of Broadway and silent-era Hollywood who, when the talkies arrived, devoted most of his energies to the classical stage. His Richard III and Hamlet are regarded as legendary.

Here Plummer reincarnates for the camera the role he created in a 1990s play by William Luce, who specialises in one-person biographical portraits (other subjects have included Emily Dickinson, Zelda Fitzgerald and Lillian Hellman).

The Barrymore Plummer gives us is in the last months of his life, having long ago lost a battle with the bottle and showing the early signs of senile dementia, rehearsing for an audition in which he will seek to persuade investors to finance a glorious comeback.

The ending is cleverly prefigured when he quotes Shakespeare's Antony, promising "one more gaudy night", but this is no litany of Shakespearean declamation: much of the action has the irascible Barrymore's wrangling with his assistant Frank (Plumpis), an ironic and combative presence in the wings, who urges the actor on and feeds him famous lines long forgotten.

The script about a man by turns bombastic, vulnerable, pretentious, vulgar and mercurially brilliant, is packed with one-liners that possibly seem quite forced on the page. But Plummer, now well into his 80s, seizes the role by the throat and turns it into a dazzling portrait of a life "waylaid by regrets". He's as impossible to dislike as he is to love - and he's mesmerising.

If the film has a fault, it lies in the decision to introduce a few jarring cutaways - a remembered childhood home, Florence by night - which dilute the effect that the actor has created by monologue alone. And some of the cuts between medium shot and close-up are pretty rough: again, the director might have trusted his talent more than he did and just sat back and watched.

But it's a grand entertainment in the old tradition, a triumph for Plummer and proof that they don't make actors like they used to - which may not be entirely a bad thing.

Stars: 4/5
Cast: Christopher Plummer, John Plumpis
Director: Erik Canuel
Running time: 83 mins
Rating: M (offensive language)
Verdict: A grand trouper's swansong magnificently re-enacted.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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