Mild things

The critical consensus about Serena is to take it out for a walk, which inevitably means that the truth is more complicated. Complication number one is the daunting digital clarity of the mountains and the mists and the fabrics and the flesh, elevating and flattening the passions at the same time. But that’s as nothing next to the complication of a cerebral Danish director trying to get her arms around a costume melodrama with hot young stars, and succeeding too well. The sexual duress and exaggeration of the melodrama — the film in which Bradley Cooper starts off saying I want a panther” right before fate delivers him a blonde one riding a white horse — is matched precisely by the general tone of cool analysis, in which the suffering is stoic and gorgeous. Susanne Bier, no doubt inclined to be equitable, balances the two aspects to the micron; an unnatural equilibrium that the mind may choose to reject. But rejecting it is certainly a choice, not an inevitability.

John Ridley had no choice but to do without the music of Jimi Hendrix in Jimi: All Is By My Side — probably a fatal blow, despite the director’s decision to ramp up an ostentatious editing style in compensation. For a minute I thought the film was the first disciple of the Oliver Stone blunderbuss approach to come along in an age, forcing a mood and a style onto the material as a way to reach some conclusions. It can’t keep it up for two hours, but an array of cross-cuts, silences, post-dubs, flashbacks, elisions and on-screen name labels elevate the thing far beyond the terrible cardboard certainties of Rush and Diana, the two purest calamities among recent biopics with their useless fixation on a subject’s inner pain. (Darko Entertainment has a hand in Jimi, pulling the film obliquely into the orbit of Richard Kelly, the once and future king of Time Out Of Joint.) The flamboyance might be blatant calculation too, papering over the small fact that the film doesn’t bother digging very deep into the head of Jimi Hendrix. Andre Benjamin’s downbeat self-negating Hendrix is a turn of much subtlety, deliberately leaving several questions wide open; a fact understandably irritating to some of those there are the time.

Given that Ridley wrote 12 Years A Slave, chances are the scene between Jimi and a slightly off-putting Adrian Lester as Michael X was his key interest in the film; a pointed debate about activism in which Jimi demurs further and further back from any kind of black struggle in favour of a fairly unworkable blissed-out humanism. I wouldn’t begrudge a director his topic, but 12 Years nearly capsized under the accumulated weight of its intentions, and the directorial fretwork in Jimi is sometimes the same heavy-handed cudgel. A few passing coppers stand in for the whole of bigoted Britain by doing fine impressions of Police Constable Savage, a bit of pantomime mummery that brings the film into disrepute when much of the rest does it credit.

But without the man’s music, it’s almost all for nothing. The film keeps cutting away from Jimi just as he’s about to strum the first bar chord of something famous, and rejoining him later in a post-coital swoon. A musician’s biopic without his music sounds like a punchline, depriving the film of the connection between his head and yours that would seem to be the point. You suspect that Oliver Stone would have glowered remorselessly at the relevant administrators until the rights issues miraculously clarified.

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