Review: Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody is a mess of contradictions

The film is frequently confounding, especially about the late Queen singer’s sexuality, but Rami Malek’s performance feels authentic and the climax is spectacular


BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY directed by Bryan Singer, written by Anthony McCarten from a story by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan, with Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Joe Mazzello. A 20th Century Fox release. 134 minutes. Opens Friday (November 2). See listing. Rating: NNN


Here’s a fun contradiction: Bohemian Rhapsody is not a very good movie, except when it’s great.

But then, this broad, grandiose Freddie Mercury biopic is a mess of contradictions – some subtextual, and some less so.

It’s a true story produced in consultation with the surviving members of Queen that’s obsessed with authenticity but perfectly willing to distort history. It’s a film credited to director Bryan Singer that was in fact completed by Dexter Fletcher after Singer was fired during principal photography.

And it’s a movie that buries Rami Malek under several layers of prosthetics to the point where he seems to be struggling to speak, but he can lip-synch (to Mercury’s own vocals) like an angel. Mercury had a pronounced overbite, but he still looked like a human being. Malek’s makeup only works from certain angles, though it’s still less distracting than seeing Mike Myers turn up as Ray Foster, the EMI executive who didn’t like Bohemian Rhapsody.

Most confounding, Bohemian Rhapsody is a drama about a gay icon that’s weirdly delicate about depicting Mercury’s homosexuality. His onstage flamboyance and contradictory sexual energy was one of the essential elements of Queen – along with the complex and daring musicianship of bandmates Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, played here by Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Joe Mazzello – and yet we see him in bed with his long-time girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) far more than with any male partner.

Still, there’s something honest and moving in those scenes between Mercury and Austin, who (the film implies) understood each other on a level no one else did, even if their romantic relationship was doomed before it began: in this version of history, Austin was the one who told Mercury he was gay long before he was ready to accept it himself.

There’s a furtiveness to Malek’s performance, a reflexive refusal to examine his own motivations, that feels totally real and true, and survives both the actor’s makeup and the film’s chaotic storytelling. His Mercury is a man who knows exactly what he wants as an artist and has no problem browbeating his bandmates or producers to get it – but can’t articulate his desires as a man, and that undermines everything he does.

When Freddie sings, though? Well, he’s a rock star, and Bohemian Rhapsody is in awe of what he could do onstage. The best sequences are devoted to re-creations of Queen at work: set pieces where they figure out Bohemian Rhapsody, Another One Bites The Dust and We Will Rock You, and an honestly electrifying finale in which the band performs at Live Aid in 1985.

That magnificent climax, with Mercury’s still-secret AIDS diagnosis adding a heartbreaking note of imminent mortality to the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody, Hammer To Fall and We Are The Champions, is a virtuoso bit of moviemaking, blending digital effects and human performance as elegantly as Singer’s X-Men films. But it’s also complicated by the film’s insistence that Live Aid was Queen’s first performance since Mercury broke up the band to pursue a solo career.

This is not true, not even a little bit – they’d been back together for more than a year before Live Aid, releasing an album and touring on it – and it’s kind of amazing that May, Taylor and Deacon are okay with this.

Like I said: contradictions. All I know for sure is that Queen was a magnificent band, Freddie Mercury had an incredible voice, and Radio Ga Ga is still a banger. I knew those things going into Bohemian Rhapsody, but it was nice to see it confirmed.

normw@nowtoronto.com | @normwilner

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