Li Cunxin’s bestselling autobiography, Mao’s Last Dancer was placed into some impressive Australian cinematic hands: legendary director Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant), Shine screenwriter Jan Sardi and producer Jane Scott. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and received a standing ovation, but what will local audiences make of this much anticipated adaptation?
Alas, for those who have read the book, Beresford’s film may well fall flat. What was an intricate and moving memoir is now a romanticised biopic: replete with generic characters and mired in midday movie sentimentality. Those unfamiliar with Li’s fate as a child plucked from poverty and moulded into a world-class ballet dancer just need to take a look at the melodramatic trailer to get up to speed.
Fortunately, however, the film does have some saving graces. The dancing, for one, is beautiful – if rather conventionally shot – and Chi Cao as the adult Li is absolutely captivating on stage. The gorgeous choreography from the Sydney Dance Company does much to rescue Mao’s Last Dancer. So too does Bruce Greenwood, never breaking stride as the warm and compassionate director of the Houston Ballet Company, Ben Stevenson. With Chi’s acting as halting as his character’s English, Greenwood fairly shoulders the film, marginally supported by Kyle MacLachlan and a bit of comic relief from Beresford stalwart Aden Young.
Curiously, the film focuses on Li’s brief relationship with his first wife Elizabeth (an out of her depth Amanda Schull), relegating Li’s second wife, Mary (Camilla Vergotis) to a mere footnote. Obviously concessions had to be made for the film’s 117min running time, but the manifest lack of chemistry between Schull and Chi further weighs down the already overwrought defection plotline.
As a dancer, Li longs to fly. And so it is particularly crushing to see such great potential fail to soar to cinematic heights.
This review was published in The Brag.
Australian release date 1 October 2009.