Thursday, 5 November 2009

Review: "I'm Not There"

If you were to ask me what I'm Not There is about, I'd probably have found it easier to answer that question before I'd watched it than after. How do you explain a film that on the surface is a biopic of Bob Dylan, but in so many ways, once you look closer, is anything but that? How do you explain that one person is played by six actors (specifically, five actors and an actress) but that none of them are actually meant to be that person? And how do you explain that, despite it being one of the most meandering, unforgiving and frustrating films you've seen for a long time, it's also a finely crafted and truly satisfying piece of cinema?

Well, I'm going to give it a try. I'm Not There presents the viewer with six stories which in some way represent an aspect of the life or work (or both) of one of the 20th Century's most influential songwriters and musicians. My knowledge of Dylan comes almost entirely from the fact that my parents are both big fans of his music. Whilst I haven't become a complete Dylan devotee, I have a serious appreciation for his work and find his near half-century-long career fascinating, even if my knowledge of the details of it is somewhat scarce. But it wasn't just to find out more about Dylan that I wanted to see I'm Not There. Possibly even more so was the adventurous format in which the film is crafted. As soon as I heard the (in hindsight, slightly erroneous) idea of six people playing Dylan in the film I was eager to see the final product.

The film sets itself an incredibly high bar and gives itself a great many opportunities to fall down. Whilst I'm Not There is not one hundred percent successful in everything it achieves, it is most certainly an admirable achievement. The cast's performance as a whole is of an incredibly high standard. Looking first at the six "Dylan characters": reliably strong turns from Christian Bale and the late Heath Ledger; Ben Whishaw gives a raw and unnerving performance as Arthur Rimbaud, feeling somewhat underused; Richard Gere gives a possibly surprisingly understated and emotional turn which benefits from being focused upon in the film's second half; Marcus Carl Franklin does well in a demanding role, but his character possibly receives more focus than is necessary; but it is Cate Blanchett who delivers the stand-out performance of all six, and indeed the film as a whole, as the Dylan character who is the most recognisable Bob Dylan both in deed and, maybe surprisingly, in appearance - Blanchett's turn as Dylan in all but name is a powerhouse from start to finish, fascinating and excruciating at the same time, but always mesmerising and scene-stealing. The fact that a male character is played by an actress is never distracting, with Blanchett's feminity only giving the character further depth and enigma. The supporting cast do so well, although they are always playing a firm second fiddle to whichever incarnation of Dylan shares screen time with them.

The dialogue is at its best when at its most organic; upon researching the film after seeing it I was unsurprised to find that many parts were taken or based upon Dylan's own writings, and it is these parts that shine the brightest in a strong overall script. The film's structure is probably the point at which it could have fallen or flown most of all, and the end product is ultimately subjective. Either you'll be taken in by the unconventional and arty methods employed by director Todd Haynes, or you'll feel entirely alienated by them and find the film an exercise in tediousness. I, for the most part, fall in the former camp: whilst I eventually found the film's execution to be refreshingly uncompromising and original, it took me over an hour to truly feel comfortable with what I was watching, and appreciate exactly how to take it all in.

The film is sprawling and meandering, and at times does feel unnecessarily slow. But any film that sets itself such a herculean task is almost inevitably going to miss the mark slightly here and there. On a second viewing, knowing exactly what I'm letting myself in for, the film may feel tigher as a whole. That said, whilst I did find it frustrating viewing at times, the eventual payoff in the film's closing scenes made me glad that I'd stuck with it. I'm Not There is certainly a film that requires a decent level of commitment and concentration to watch properly, but it's certainly worth the effort giving a fascinating and unique cinematic experience. Even if you know nothing about Bob Dylan's life, it's still most definitely worth watching.

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