Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Penélope Cruz, Nicole Kidman and Marion Cotillard. Directed by Rob Marshall.
Rated M (sexual references). 117 mins.

Aficionados of the Broadway musical have known about Nine for nearly 30 years  The stage musical based on famous Italian director Federico Fellini’s autobiographical fantasy 8½ won five Tony Awards in 1982, one for Best Musical, another for Best Score. It was a major Broadway success for its composer-lyricist, Maury Yeston, an associate professor of music at Yale University, whose songs had a literacy and musical invention that warranted a place alongside the classiest creators of musical theatre.

Now Rob Marshall, the former choreographer whose screen adaptation of Chicago was such a spectacular hit eight years ago, has, in conjunction with screenwriters Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella, brought the work back to the big screen, where it began in black-and-white in 1963.

Nine is about the mid-life crisis of  “famous Italian director” Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis). His personal life is crumbling around him and the creative juices driving his professional career have dried up. His previous two films have been flops, and he can’t come up with an idea for his next, to be called Italia, which is scheduled to begin shooting in 10 days. He jokes his way through a press conference “Can you tell us what Italia is about?” says a journalist.  “Why?” he asks in reply. “I still don’t know what my last film was about!”

Guido escapes to a spa resort in Anzio where he hopes to be incognito and find inspiration.  He is joined by his mistress Carla (Penélope Cruz) but followed by his producer and crew, his trusted friend and costume designer Lilli (Judi Dench), two of his conquests, actress Claudia (Nicole Kidman) and a Vogue journalist Stephanie (Kate Hudson) and, eventually, his long-suffering wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard). One by one he fractures the bonds with them and faces a breakdown. Between them, they force him to face his shortcomings as a man — in summary, that he has never grown up and is still an emotional nine-year-old (“my body’s nearing 50 as my mind is nearing 10,” he acknowledges).

These women and others from his past life — the village whore Saraghina (Fergy), from whom he got his first ideas about sex as a little boy, and his mother (Sophia Loren) — have influenced Guido’s life, and their songs (all ably delivered by a cast mostly not known for their singing) are generally about their various relationships with the “maestro”.

Kidman, as Guido’s muse who would be making her ninth film with him, has the sweetest song, Unusual Way; Fergie scores strongly with the boisterous Be Italian; Hudson is personality plus in what is a perfunctory role, making the most of a showy song, Cinema Italiano; Cruz vamps it up in the ironically titled A Call From the Vatican (Guido has to pretend it is a monsignor ringing him); and Cotillard, the film’s most appealing performer, has two of its most effective songs: the reflective My Husband Makes Movies and the dynamic Take It All, a striptease as metaphor for how Guido’s fecklessness has left her in an emotional vacuum.

The stage Nine proved how Fellini’s film about his artistic crisis was fertile material for a musical. The surreal elements offered a ready springboard for breaking into song, and Yeston’s rich and sophisticated score capitalised wonderfully. But something went missing in transferring Nine to the screen. Individual songs are splendidly realised, with some nifty camera movement and sharp editing, as might be expected from the man who made Chicago. However, the film jettisons more than half Yeston’s stage score and with it has gone much of the distinctive style of the piece.

Staging the songs as mostly flashbacks or, for ensembles, as production numbers on a soundstage at Cinecittà Studios, Rome, becomes rather repetitious. What’s more, the transitions between these fantasy sequences, which intermingle colour with grainy black-and-white, and the central storyline are less than seamless. The film does not really jell, partly because the scenes of Guido’s crisis are so strong. Daniel Day-Lewis is marvellous in the role, singing as well as acting, and particularly successful at conveying Guido’s vulnerability. But the character is a bit of a misery guts in truth, and a somewhat lighter touch could have been a benefit. This is one movie that could have done with less realism.

Humour is noticeable by its scarcity. Curiously, two moments that are amusing both involve Guido’s wavering Catholicism: his scramble to put the hotel-room crucifix away in a drawer before bedding his mistress, and his attempt to discuss God with a cardinal when the prelate only wants to talk about his films.

There are more cigarettes smoked in Nine than in any film in my recent memory (well, it is set in 1965) and it may find its way into trivia lore as the film in which the final word uttered is the one generally associated with getting a movie started: “action”.

Sony  Out January 2

Mr Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


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