The week in culture

Film
Bohemian Rhapsody
★★☆☆☆

Freddie Mercury biopic bites the dust

“We don’t follow formulas,” say the members of Queen, circa 1975, but anyone hoping for this Freddie Mercury biopic to take its cue from the rock-operatic masterpiece of the title will be disappointed. Rami Malek’s excellent performance aside, it feels less a pioneering musical odyssey than the tale of a really good covers band. Then again, considering the well-publicised troubles this movie has been through – Malek stepped in to replace the departed Sacha Baron Cohen, director Dexter Fletcher stepped in to replace the departed Bryan Singer – it is some achievement that it got made at all.

There is no lack of material to work with, given Queen’s stratospheric rise and Mercury’s tragic fall – he died from Aids-related illness in 1991. Not to mention the improbability of a straight, white rock band fronted by a flamboyant, gay man of Asian descent. Perhaps as a result of the personnel changes, Bohemian Rhapsody struggles to find a fresh way to tell its story.

It begins as Zanzibari immigrant Farrokh Bulsara forsakes his traditional family and racist 1970s smalltown for the glamour of rock’n’roll, then skirts dangerously close to Spinal Tap territory, what with mic-stand malfunctions and old-school industry execs telling our mulleted quartet what to do.

But even at this stage it feels as if the story is being told with benefit of hindsight. Malek’s Mercury seems to arrive fully formed and confident that everything will work out, and some of the dialogue is just too on the nose to ring true (“There’s no musical ghetto that can contain us”). All of which almost cheats us of the anticipated first-act rush of success.

Malek’s transformation is initially disconcerting. His plummy accent feels exaggerated, as does his approximation of Mercury’s famous overbite. But as he loses the mullet, grows the moustache and heads into the late 70s, he really grows into the role. The singing voice is apparently an “amalgamation”, not Malek’s own, but on stage he apes Mercury’s strutting, virile bravado with dynamic conviction, particularly in the climactic recreation of Queen’s Live Aid performance.

The real problem is how to handle Mercury’s off-stage life. There is the story of Mercury’s relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). They begin as lovers and even become engaged, although it is clear Mercury is bisexual, if not gay. The film’s most moving scene is where Mercury admits this, and to complex feelings of love for Mary. “I want you in my life,” he says. “Why?” she replies.

There’s also Mercury’s bromance with the other members of Queen to address. Two of them, Brian May and Roger Taylor, co-produced the movie. The band members take a back seat, but not too far back so as to leave the impression Mercury was the sole talent. You still discover that May wrote We Will Rock You, that Taylor was a hit with the ladies, and that bassist John Deacon wrote Another One Bites the Dust.

By the early 80s, crisis looms: the married Queen members no longer share Mercury’s tastes in fashion, partying, sexual partners, or even music. The inevitable bust-up is out of the Spinal Tap playbook but, unforgivably, Bohemian Rhapsody casts Mercury’s wilderness years as a symptom of his gayness. We see the solo Mercury in Munich, drug-addled, shorn of his real friends and exploited by his new ones, who are mostly leather-clad, party-happy men. It reduces Mercury’s homosexuality to a tutting: “He’s got in with the wrong crowd.”

A bolder film might have explored the relationship between Mercury’s hedonism, his mostly closeted sexuality and his on- and off-stage personas in a more nuanced way. Or at least taken its cue from Mercury’s own songbook and played it with some melodramatic abandon. As it is, this one seeks to tick the biographical boxes and wrap everything up neatly with a redemptive finale. That comes via the Live Aid performance, which at least ends the story on a high. Bohemian Rhapsody honours Mercury the showman but never really gets to Mercury the person.

Steve Rose

What others said

“The music, beautifully presented, makes this idiotic dirge just about bearable and sprinkles the proceedings with a hint of soul.”
Kevin Maher The Times

“With its show-must-go-on Live Aid finale, Bohemian Rhapsody nails Queen’s majesty. What eludes the film is Freddie Mercury’s mystery.”
Owen Gleiberman Variety

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TV
A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad
BBC Two

★★★★★

The making of Syria’s murderous monster

The third and final instalment began with an interview with a Syrian doctor. Zaher Sahloul went to medical school with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. “It’s very ironic,” he said. “We were classmates and now one of us is bombing hospitals. And one of us is treating the victims of the bombing.”

How did a shy, awkward, people-pleasing ophthalmologist become a murderous tyrant? How did someone trained to heal the sick end up killing more than half a million Syrians?

His wife is no less perplexing a figure: born in the UK and raised in west London, Asma al-Assad was about to go to Harvard when she chose instead to marry Assad, who had inherited his rule from his father after his older brother was killed in a car accident. Glamorous and articulate, the new first lady initially appeared to be a reform-minded influence. “Probably one of the best things about him is that he’s so easy to talk to,” she once said.

Asma was being interviewed for a spectacularly ill-timed Vogue profile on the day in late 2010 that a fruit vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia in a protest that would kickstart the Arab spring. By the time the Vogue piece labelling Asma “the Desert Rose” hit the news stands, waves of unrest were lapping at Syria’s borders.

In those early days, there was hope that Assad might avoid disaster by opting for reform instead of a crackdown. “The wild horse of revolution has arrived without a knight,” one minister wrote to him. “I would hope that you would be that knight.” But he opted not only for repression, but for stunning brutality.

It is hard to believe Assad is wholly in charge. Intelligence showed that his mother pressured him to take a tough line and it is possible that some atrocities may have been outsourced to his younger brother. But the idea of Assad as the mild-mannered face of a brutal regime controlled by other elements of the family is misleading. Paperwork shows that he knew about – and signed off on – everything.

A Dangerous Dynasty has retained an eye for details that are absurd and chilling: male army recruits were required to stab puppies in front of Assad’s father, Hafez, to demonstrate their loyalty; female recruits had to bite the heads off snakes.

As Bashar went to war against his people, the scale of his crimes began to outstrip the film-makers’ ability to record them. Protesters were killed in their hundreds. Whole neighbourhoods were destroyed by government shelling. The journalist Marie Colvin was targeted, using her mobile phone signal, and killed. A Dangerous Dynasty was unflinching. I flinched repeatedly.

Certainly Assad failed his test of humanity, but what of Asma? Could she countenance the regime’s actions? Did she have a choice? Emails show that she was, in fact, ordering a lot of stuff from Harrods. Whenever she emerged in public, her declarations of loyalty were tireless.

The show reminded us that Assad’s decision to plunge Syria into civil war was a massive miscalculation. At one point he controlled less than 20% of the country. Had Russia not come to his rescue, he would be gone.

It was a thoroughly terrifying lesson in how we ended up here.

Tim Dowling

What others said

“This conclusion left us with a better idea than at the start about Assad’s astonishing transformation.”
Sean O’Grady The Independent

“You can see why a number of the experts on the Assads’ story invoke Shakespeare: this luridly gripping portrait of a dynasty has revealed that all the archetypes are in situ.”
Jasper Rees The Daily Telegraph

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Art
Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms
British Library, London

★★★★★

Spectacular... The Charter of Edgar to the New Minster, Winchester, AD966 Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Barbaric splendour and fierce visions

The gallery is full of snakes that twist and slither in hypnotising coils of green and gold, ensnaring the imagination. To spend time in the British Library’s blockbuster show about the Anglo-Saxon world is to discover a culture of barbaric splendour and fierce vision where the real and supernatural entwine.

The snakes are cast in gold and painted in books. You see them on a belt buckle from Sutton Hoo and the abstracted illuminations of Northumbrian gospels. The Germanic people who invaded Britain after the Romans left in AD410, pushing the native Celts into what became Wales, brought these swarming serpentine images from deep in the mists of Eurasian prehistory.

These snakes are also a troubling metaphor for the madness that swarms Britain’s sense of itself today. The oldest and most enduring of our myths of nationhood is that, in 1066, an “English” nation of plucky Anglo-Saxons was conquered by Normans.

But this vast and engrossing survey of Saxon art and manuscripts reveals a place that was not very English at all. One minute it looks Scandinavian, the next Celtic – but mostly it seems, well, European.

One of the most spectacular loans is the Codex Amiatinus, the oldest surviving complete Latin Bible. For centuries the book was passed off as an Italian creation, but a scrubbed-out inscription proves it was created in north-east England and sent as a gift to the pope in 716.

It contains a lifelike painting of a scholar that is visibly influenced by ancient Roman art – not a snake in sight. This show reveals untold sophistication in Anglo-Saxon art.

The manuscripts here, too, show an incredible mental transformation. In their complex interplay of word and image we can see a savage, warlike and illiterate people become a European civilisation of the book.

We should look less for national origins in this remote age and celebrate instead the otherness of its brilliant creativity.

Jonathan Jones

What others said

“The most significant exhibition in London … Some of the most beautiful religious works you’ll ever see.”
Melanie McDonagh Evening Standard

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Theatre
Link Link by Isabella Rossellini
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

★★☆☆☆

Superstar’s performing pooch steals the show

Isabella Rossellini went back to university to study animal behaviour, she tells us, as she delivers a cod-donnish lecture on everything from scientific theories on animal intelligence to the sex lives of whales.

Co-directed by Guido Torlonia, it is billed as a one-woman show but is not quite that. Alongside her adorable and supremely obedient dog, Pan, there is also Schuyler Beeman, who is a silent performer, bringing stuffed animal toys or puppets on stage while dressed in beekeeper’s headgear.

Much of the performance veers into surreal whimsy: Rossellini is dressed like a stylish court jester as she enters the stage, after shrieking and hiding behind the curtain, accompanied by a soundtrack of clucking hens.

The show comprises stories told by Rossellini in a hodgepodge of forms, including films, skits and the odd circus trick by Pan, who trots on to the stage, sometimes dressed as a chicken, sheep or lion, and rolls over or dances on instruction.

He is such a natural performer that the show might have benefited from more of Pan’s antics. The production is anchored by Rossellini’s clear and genuine passion for animals, yet its various parts are too disparate, its drama too static, its comedy too cutesy, and it never raises itself off the ground.

She speaks of initially imagining the show as “a little film that went through my head … because an actress thinks films can resolve it all”. Ironically, the show has a self-consciously theatrical aesthetic and Rossellini’s intense and sultry cinematic presence is substituted for an unexpectedly zany stage persona.

Rick Gilbert and Andy Byers’ stage design is a cross between a children’s nursery and a circus set, with a miniature piano, wooden toys, circus motifs and plinths featuring Aristotle, Descartes and other ancient thinkers at the back of the stage.

The short films seem like homages or pastiches. Some are silent, black-and-white sequences set to piano music, in which Rossellini acts out parts such as a performer having rotten tomatoes thrown at her. More knowingly quirky are childlike film reels of Rossellini dressed as a bird or an insect against cardboard backdrops.

Family photos are thrown in, too: an image of Rossellini’s mother, Ingrid Bergman, a snap of an incandescent young Isabella beside her father, Roberto Rossellini, and pictures of her dogs, pigs and beloved hens.

Big questions about nature and science are thrown out, and seem ultimately aimed at proving that the animal kingdom is on the same continuum of humanity as us. As a message, this is deep and heartfelt. As a show, it does not always cohere, though it is not without its sparkly and original moments.

Arifa Akbar

What others said

“Fascinating, serious stuff delivered with a sense of spontaneity that includes the odd stumble, pause and prop malfunction.”
Anna Winter The Stage

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Comedy
Dave Chappelle and Jon Stewart
Royal Albert Hall, London

★★★★☆

Race, gender, guns and big laughs at US’s expense

Plenty of comics critique Trump. Few have been greeted with cries of “Run for president!”. Such is the stature of tonight’s headliners, Dave Chappelle and – the president-not-quite-elect in question – Jon Stewart. Chappelle and Stewart keep the reverence at arm’s length, delivering strong sets about the state of their nation.

There certainly is a statesmanlike quality to Stewart’s 40 minutes, which prove his standup chops while staying resolutely on left-liberal message. It’s textbook stuff, starting with jokes about how he looks (“Jews age like avocados”) then broaching issues of the racism, sexism and gun violence that exercise his Daily Show fanbase. Some jokes are old hat, such as the one about Obama’s name. (He argues Obama’s, not Trump’s, was the anomalous presidency in US history.) Some are neatly done, like the switchback that makes a mockery of the safeguards over firearm sales.

The strongest section sees Stewart coolly narrate the tale of his own presidential Twitter spat, when Trump accused the comic of obscuring his Jewish heritage. A final section finds Stewart celebrating that heritage – albeit regretting its limited appeal to his kids.

Chappelle’s set enters more contentious territory. As ever, it’s racially charged, as Chappelle jokes from a rich black man’s perspective about school shootings and opioids as white people’s business. The sleight of hand is in aping mainstream attitudes to black social problems, and Chappelle affects indifference to the suffering of whites with glee.

On gun violence, he is wickedly sharp – “there’s no peaceful way to disarm these whites”, he deadpans. At its best, his material plays havoc with your moral compass. A closing section on how #MeToo excludes black women is as much sermon as comedy, from an act whose material on gender is not always as authoritative as his material on race.

But it remains a fine show, delivering big, rich, complex laughs at America’s expense.

Brian Logan

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Last night’s TV
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Netflix

★★★☆☆

Two decades on, the teenage witch returns, rebooted
for darker times – but the magic never happens

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest,” said CS Lewis. As with children’s books, so with teen television series. Dawson’s Creek was a soapy joy for anyone. Gossip Girl could get your venal glands juicing no matter how much age had otherwise withered you. The seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of course, stand shoulder to shoulder with any more ostensibly adult offerings, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is unlikely to trouble their ranks. It’s technically a reboot of the massively popular mid-90s series Sabrina the Teenage Witch, although it is so different in content, tone and aesthetics from the chirpy, saccharine offering of two decades ago that apart from the basics, they have virtually nothing in common.

Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka of Mad Men fame) is once again a half-witch, half-mortal teenager who must struggle to reconcile her dual nature and try not to drown in adolescent metaphor. She lives in Greendale – site of a Salemesque witch hunt back in the day – with her aunts Hilda and Zelda. This Sabrina has long been aware of her heritage and is preparing for her Dark Baptism on her 16th birthday, which will bring her into into full wiccahood and require her to leave Greendale and all her friends at Greendale Totally Normal High School for a new witchy life at the Academy for Unseen Arts.

The ingredients for a spellbinding show are all there – a blood curse, hints that her parents did not die in an accident as she’s been told, the academy’s mean girls apparating in the forest to warn Sabrina of the world of new girl pain that awaits her – but the magic never happens. It remains almost impossible leaden – the lack of chemistry between Shipka and Ross Lynch (as Sabrina’s boyfriend Harvey) emblematic of that dogging the rest of the collation.

Things really come alive only when the ever-magnificent Michelle Gomez strides on screen as Sabrina’s mousy teacher now possessed by a demon bent on visiting hell on Sabrina because her father married a mortal. No one does glittering-eyed madness like Gomez, and she is so far tapping into about 1% of her reserves of bonkersness – so it might almost be worth staying with it to the end of the series just to see how much she will be allowed to unleash. Almost.

Lucy Mangan

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What we learned

Mockingbird voted US’s best
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer prize-winning story about racism and injustice in the American south has been voted the US’s best-loved novel in a poll conducted by public service broadcaster PBS. More than 4m votes were cast.

Drake beats the Beatles
Canadian rapper Drake has beaten a 50-year-old US chart record to become the pop artist with the most Top 10 hits in a year – the Beatles set the record in 1964 with 11. Drake’s guest spot on MIA by Puerto Rican pop star Bad Bunny is his 12th appearance in the US Top 10 this year.

Singer Drake performs at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2015. Photograph: Chelsea Lauren/WireImage

Prized Dead Sea Scrolls ‘are fake’
The Museum of the Bible has announced that five of its most prized artefacts – valuable fragments in its collection of Dead Sea Scrolls – are forgeries and will no longer be displayed at the museum in Washington DC. Tests found the fragments showed “characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin”.