Nineteenth-century Italian violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini was rumored to have made a Faustian pact in order to play like the devil, though the flexibility that enabled him to cover three octaves across four strings with one hand was more likely a side effect of a genetic connective-tissue disorder.
Bernard Rose’s elegantly staged but tonally flat biopic embraces the myth, even underscoring Paganini’s rising fame, scandalous hedonism, and womanizing as an anachronistic form of rock-star fantasy. (It’s like a humorless take on Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, and who wants that?) Unlike the writer-director’s 1994 success Immortal Beloved — owned by Gary Oldman’s chameleonic transformation as Beethoven — Rose’s cult-of-personality approach here suffers most from the stunt casting of German violin prodigy–turned-superstar David Garrett as Paganini.
He’s handsome and fiddles something fierce, but his acting aptitude is more “Chopsticks” than Caprice no. 24 in A minor. And by the numbers we go, from childhood flashbacks of Paganini abused by his father to an overlong episode involving media-savvy manager Urbani (a portentous Jared Harris) bringing his talent to London, and don’t forget the shallow romance.
The classical titan is no closer to being knowable, so instead, why not enjoy the maniacal provocations of the 1989 biopic Paganini — Klaus Kinski’s final frenzy.