Amadeus (1984)    2 Stars

“…Everything you’ve heard is true”

Amadeus (1984)

Director: Milos Forman

Cast: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge

Synopsis: The incredible story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, told by his peer and secret rival Antonio Salieri – now confined to an insane asylum.

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With Amadeus, as with all movies that claim to be based on fact, it’s difficult to know where the border between truth and artistic licence lies. The movie portrays Austrian Emperor Joseph II’s court composer Salieri as a frustrated man of limited musical talent who befriended the genius upstart Wolfgang (Wolfie to his wife) Mozart in order to engineer his downfall. There appears to be no historical basis for this theory: Salieri and Mozart were known to be friends — Salieri even taught one of Mozart’s sons — and there’s little evidence of enmity towards Mozart on the part of Salieri. That, together with some suspiciously anachronistic use of language — did Mozart really ever utter the line ‘eat shit’? — give rise to the suspicion that the story of the movie Amadeus owes more to the imagination of playwright Peter Schaffer than the pages of history.

It’s a shame because the story is compelling. Salieri (F. Murray Abraham — Scarface, Mimic — giving an award-winning performance) relates the story of his life to an initially disinterested priest while in an insane asylum after attempting suicide. It’s a story that is dominated by Mozart, a crude young man whose natural talent for music stirs impassioned flames of jealousy in the older man. Although Salieri had risen to the prestigious position of court composer, his instinctive musical genius forced him to acknowledge the limitations of his own modest talent. Although Salieri is cast as the villain of the piece, his character is a more rounded one than Mozart’s in the movie. While Mozart is portrayed as little more than a likeable nutter despite his boorish manners, there’s a little of Salieri in all of us. Who amongst us has not wished at some time in our lives to be able to write a novel like Hemingway, a song like Springsteen, or direct a movie like Spielberg? The creative urge resides within us all, and is difficult to ignore.

Like most of us, Salieri desires that greatness without really wanting to put in the hours. He demands that God use him in the way that he uses Mozart, and when God fails to deliver he makes an enemy of the Big Man, and petulantly vows to destroy his rival. And although he’s the villain, he’s not a bad man and must consciously disregard his principles in order to follow his plan — which ultimately results in his suicide attempt.

The film looks ravishing, the music is as good as you would expect, and for all his boorishness, Mozart, as played by Tom Hulce — whose career never really took off the way it should have — possesses a vulnerability that’s curiously endearing. Hulce’s is a supporting role, however, despite his character’s name providing the movie’s title; it’s Abraham’s movie, and he delivers a skilfully nuanced performance in the type of role that cries out to be unsympathetic, but which never is.

(Reviewed 22/11/12)