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Review: ‘The Devil’s Violinist’ a seductive take on Paganini as rock star

Jared Harris as Urbani in the movie "The Devil's Violinst," directed by Bernard Rose.
Jared Harris as Urbani in the movie “The Devil’s Violinst,” directed by Bernard Rose.
(Freestyle Releasing)

A century before bluesman Robert Johnson’s mythical confrontation at a Mississippi crossroads, another prodigious musical talent was believed to have struck a deal with the devil: Niccolo Paganini, 19th century violin virtuoso, international luminary and, according to writer-director Bernard Rose’s seductive new film, the world’s first rock star.

At Paganini’s concerts, women shriek and swoon; others shout out the equivalent of “Free Bird!” to the maestro’s dismay.

Though his dramatic performance is somewhat too mild, classical-pop violinist David Garrett brings an electrifying musical authenticity to the lead role in “The Devil’s Violinist.” The incomparable Jared Harris supplies restrained flamboyance as Paganini’s manager, a mystery figure who might be an emissary of Satan, or merely a consummate manipulator.

The main action unfolds in 1830, when Urbani (Harris) contracts with an eager-to-please London impresario (Christian McKay) for the Italian star’s British debut. Already famous on the Continent — for his sexual prowess and profligate ways as much as for his revolutionary talent — Paganini arrives in Blighty to find himself targeted by a temperance crusader (Olivia d’Abo) and, in a different way, by a ruthless reporter. Joely Richardson hams up the part deliciously, Cockney-style; her scenes with Harris are thrilling in their dark-spirited pizazz.

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A lower-energy, more earnest spark flies between Paganini and an aspiring singer (Andrea Deck) who’s initially so repulsed by him that they can only fall in love. Deck is a trained soprano as well as an actress, and her duets with Garrett are strong.

Against Rose’s painterly depiction of London, the movie examines very up-to-date notions about scandal and publicity. First-time actor Garrett is better at conveying Paganini’s artistic sensitivity and self-indulgence than his innovative fire. When he picks up the fiddle, though, he speaks with eloquent authority.

“The Devil’s Violinist.”

MPAA rating: R for strong sexuality, nudity, drug use.

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Running time: 1 hours, 57 minutes.

Playing: Sundance Sunset, Los Angeles. Also on VOD.


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