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Tony Palmer's tour de force biopic of the great twentieth-century Russian composer is, cinematically, a work of genius. Aided by Nic Knowland's stunning cinematography and the director's own well-observed production design, the film is visually compelling and a fine manifestation of cinema as art.
Palmer edited the film himself, and it shows. On the one hand, he has an imaginative grasp of montage - there are thrilling sequences of images denoting the 1917 Revolution and the hagiography of Stalin. On the other hand, it isn't always clear from the sequences of images what point he is trying to put across; the Babi Yar sequence is confused in its apparent attempt to equate Stalinism with Nazism.
One thing is clear, however. Without a good knowledge of Shostakovich's life and his music, a viewer cannot get the most out of this film. Even if like me you have read the composer's disputed memoirs several times, you often find yourself asking: "What year are we in now? Who is that character? Which part of his life are we dealing with?" Narrative clarity is not Palmer's priority, and perhaps it shouldn't be; but newcomers to Shostakovich would not be advised to start here.
Kingsley's performance as Shostakovich is impeccable. Although he doesn't resemble the composer precisely, his bearing and delivery convey the composer's inner torment and private battles with perfection. Veering between nervousness and furious sarcasm, he brings across all Shostakovich's difficulty of reconciling his private vision with his public role. Mention should also be made of Terence Rigby as Stalin - wordless for at least half the film, he carries a malevolent presence which suggests the sheer imposing terror of the man himself.
In other respects, the film is flawed - the appearance of household names in small roles is distracting (Frank Carson as a Russian clown, for heaven's sake!) and Russian names are frequently mispronounced and mistranscribed. Including footage of present-day musicians performing Shostakovich's music is not as incongruous as it sounds; but it is a pity that the works are sung in English, robbing them of the natural poetry of the Russian to which they were set.
That 'Testimony' is a labour of love is unmistakable; that it is, technically, one of the most compelling pieces of British cinema is indisputable. But it is too long, the parallels between Shostakovich and Stalin are perhaps foregrounded too much, and there is a danger that this enigmatic composer will seem even less accessible after watching. That does the composer a disservice; but, on the other hand, let's be grateful that this film was made at all.
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