Bel Canto is an adaptation of the Ann Patchett novel first published in 2001, which I remembered as being brilliant and unputdownable, even if I recalled only a few of the details — hostages, an opera singer; that was about it. So I found it on the bookshelf and read it again, which was daft. The book is brilliant (and unputdownable) and now I can’t come to the film without comparing them, which is unfair and not helpful. But I’m going to say it anyway: this isn’t as good as the book. Not nearly.
Patchett’s novel was inspired by the Peruvian hostage crisis of 1996, when members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement kidnapped a group of high-level diplomats, government and business people who had gathered for a party at the Japanese ambassador’s official residence in Lima. But what this narrative lacked, Patchett must have thought, is an opera singer, which isn’t unreasonable, as what situation wouldn’t be substantially enlivened by having an opera singer in its mix?
So here we have world-famous soprano Roxane Coss (Julianne Moore) accepting an invitation to sing at an exclusive party in some Latin American country (it is never named). The party is being held in the vice-president’s palatial mansion and Coss has been paid her huge fee in an attempt to woo Japanese businessman Katsumi Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe), who is an opera fanatic and may invest in the country, or so the officials hope. But as Coss sings her final aria of the night — Moore lip synchs to Renée Fleming — the lights in the mansion flicker, then die, and the terrorists burst in. Is this moment electrifying? Not especially, but, fair play, it might have been had I not just (stupidly) reread the book.
The terrorists, who are demanding that political prisoners be released, are then holed up with the hostages for days, weeks, months. The main hostage characters, aside from Coss and Hosokawa, are the vice-president (J. Eddie Martinez), a young priest (Bobby Daniel Rodriguez), the French ambassador (Christopher Lambert) and Hosokawa’s loyal translator (Ryo Kase). While on the terrorist side there is, primarily, Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta) and Carmen (Maria Mercedes Coroy). Essentially, it’s a disaster-movie scenario where a disparate group of people are held in a situation where they are forced to get to know each other. That’s always the plan, anyhow. But while relationships and even romances develop, they are one-note.
As directed by Paul Weitz (Grandma, About a Boy), who also wrote the screenplay, the characters never properly amount to more than their nationality, and aren’t allowed the breathing space to become real people with inner lives and inner journeys. Mostly, they feel purely functional. The priest, for instance, performs his function, then disappears for such long periods you actually forget he was ever there. (Ditto the vice-president.)
It also feels false. It was actually filmed in Bulgaria (quite cheaply, I think), so the geography doesn’t quite ring true, and while Moore lip syncs her little heart out, god bless her, that doesn’t quite ring true either. On the other hand, no film starring Moore could ever be a complete write-off. She carries this — to the extent that it is carried. In fact, any scene she isn’t in pretty much dies on its arse, to put it plainly.
The film is, essentially, methodical rather than dramatically tense and, while it should be an exciting blend of guns and Puccini and sex in the china cupboard, it never fully comes to life. Not nearly as good as the book. Shouldn’t have reread it. Sorry.