A night at the theatre can feel a bit like a lottery. Regardless of how exceptional a performance might be, the location of your seat can be so critical to your level of enjoyment. No such problem arises with play-cum-film Barrymore; director Erik Canuel ensures his audience get the best seat in the house.
If treated as a play, Barrymore is revolutionary theatre. It lifts an otherwise passive audience out of their seats, permitting them to interact with the superstar performer on stage.
As a film, Barrymore is still impressive, but not nearly as special. The decision to convert this Broadway play into a live-action movie is an original one. Unfortunately, inventiveness doesn’t necessarily guarantee audiences will remain attentive for 80 minutes.
Before dwelling on the negatives, it must be reiterated that Barrymore is a unique dramatic spectacle. In addition to the creative screenplay, recent Academy Award winning actor Christopher Plummer delivers a phenomenal performance. The veteran thespian shines as a self-indulgent – albeit philosophical – John Barrymore, re-living the stage role he performed in 1997.
Barrymore is a has-been actor, desperate to revive his profession after a lean patch. Despite promising a rendition of Richard III, Barrymore instead delivers soliloquy after soliloquy, taking the audience inside his troubled mind.
At times he is amusing, delivering childish wisecracks and reparteeing with his faceless off-stage prompter (John Plumpis). But Plummer’s theatrical versatility is most evident during the scenes of lament and self-pity. As the spotlight dims to reveal the protagonist’s darker side, the actor wages war on himself. Such moments make the titular lead resemble a hopeless senile drunk, but Plummer’s performance is always convincing.
With that said, Barrymore was not made for everybody. A particular niche audience – nostalgic fifty-something theatre lovers – will adore Plummer and this stage rendition. The film-within-a-film, play-within-a-play framework will be too arty for some viewers. Meanwhile, the ambiguity between Barrymore’s fragile mental state and his reality will confuse as many patrons as it will impress.
An apathetic observer, however, can still appreciate the film’s visual beauty. While Barrymore may not have the in-your-face flashiness of Hollywood epics, it is a film that well and truly belongs on the big screen. The high-definition texture of Plummer’s profile is superb; every one of his wrinkles is a character of their own. It isn’t a sight for everyone, but theatre tragics are likely to savour every moment.
Barrymore will only be in Australian cinemas on Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 August through Sharmill Films.