Bel Canto (3 stars)

Bel Canto

Paul Weitz helms an intriguing but flawed hostage drama, starring Julianne Moore

Inspired by the Japanese embassy hostage crisis that took place in Peru in 1996, Bel Canto is a tale of terrorism shorn of the heroics that usually accompany your typical Hollywood take on the subject. Based on the award-winning novel by Ann Patchett, the first surprising thing to learn is that Paul Weitz is at the helm. The director of American Pie, who was Oscar-nominated for his About a Boy screenplay and went on to make the excellent Grandma, has tended to stick to comedy so this represents a significant departure.

Set in an unnamed South American country, it begins as opera singer Roxanne Coss (Julianne Moore) arrives to perform at a diplomatic dinner. Despite her slight disdain for the gig, she's been specially requested by incoming Japanese industrialist – and opera fanatic – Hosokawa (Ken Watanabe). No sooner has she started warbling than a bunch of armed rebels invade the house, demanding the release of political prisoners.

So begins an ordeal for both the party guests and the luckless staff, who are taken hostage. Sent in to mediate is Sebastian Koch's German negotiator Messner, but the situation only worsens as the government ignores the rebels' demands. With the President absent from the party because he preferred to stay at home and watch his favourite soap, Weitz and his co-writer Anthony Weintraub clearly want us to sympathise with the captors as much as the captives.

While this makes for an intriguing dynamic, the execution is flawed. Moore may be a fine actress, but her lip-synching to the singing voice of opera star Renée Fleming (whose recordings Patchett listened to whilst writing the book) really doesn't work. Similarly, turning a taut terrorist drama into a love story as characters pair off and passions flow is not without its problems. Despite adeptly handling a multilingual scenario, Weitz can't seem to decide what kind of film he wants Bel Canto to be, although the haunting finale still hits home.

General release from Fri 26 Apr.

Bel Canto

  • 3 stars
  • 2018
  • US
  • 1h 40min
  • Directed by: Paul Weitz
  • Cast: Julianne Moore, Ken Watanabe, Sebastian Koch

Roxanne Coss (Moore) is an opera singer hired to perform at a diplomatic dinner in an unnamed South American country, but then rebels invade the house and take everyone hostage. This adaptation of Ann Patchett’s novel lacks the usual heroics and Weitz clearly aims for a more thoughtful approach, but can’t decide what kind…