Film and drama Opinion

The golden age of Hollywood roars to decadent life in Babylon

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A group of film industry professionals must adapt to the changing face of Hollywood while also dealing with their own struggles. Digital editor Dan Jensen shares his thoughts on a new film that is polarising critics and audiences, but offers something magical if you can find it.

BABYLON is the kind of movie that is more of a sensorial experience than your standard big-screen affair. It’s a love letter to cinema, encased in a glittering bauble and wrapped with a rainbow ribbon. It frequently moves at a thousand miles an hour before giving the audience a moment to catch its breath, but it’s also the kind of movie you’re going to either love or hate.

Starting off in the golden age of Hollywood, Babylon focuses on five characters who are part of the movie industry and we follow their journey as films transition from silent to “talkies”. But while light on plot, Babylon is rich with themes and some delightfully memorable characters. It’s also a feast for the eyes, with some wonderfully lavish production design.

The two main stars of the show are Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, teaming up once again as Jack Conrad and Nellie LaRoy. Jack is a veteran of the screen, but while his life appears glamorous and envious to many, the man is fighting his own demons behind the scenes. It’s a commentary on the illusion of celebrity and how we place actors on pedestals, robbing them of their humanity.

Then we have Margot Robbie, turning in a career-defining performance as the enigmatic Nellie. This is a character who will stop at nothing to achieve fame, but with the talent to back up her desire. She’s a carefree spirit who lives by her own rules and might be more than a little bit nuts. She’s vulgar and untamable, but her wild nature captures the heart of production assistant Manny Torres, played by Diego Calva in his debut Hollywood feature film role.

Manny goes from the lower ranks of the industry, being sent on errands and making sure stars are sober enough to turn up on time, and works his way up the ladder to become a producer of his own films. But success changes him and he loses his child-like wonder at the magic of cinema along the way. It’s another commentary on how success can change a person and also on dealing with the consequences of your own actions.

The two other characters rounding out the main cast are cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) and jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), the pair contributing to themes of sexual and racial struggles of the period. All of the film’s characters are reported to have been inspired by real people and the way they shaped the history of cinema.

Babylon has divided critics almost down the middle, with the film currently sitting at 56% on Rotten Tomatoes. And it’s understandable — this is a film that not everyone will appreciate. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has, in the past, delivered some extraordinary films such as La La Land and Whiplash, and it’s impossible not to recognise the man’s talent for bringing the absolute best out of his cast. Everyone in this film is at their peak, even down to the smaller roles.

And the film is packed with A-list actors in minor roles. Olivia Wilde is in one brief scene and mostly shot from behind. Flea (bassist with the Red Hot Chili Peppers) is fantastic as a grumpy studio executive. Samara Weaving shares screen time with Margot and one can’t help but wonder if it’s an intentional gag considering the two are often mistaken for each other.

But the standout minor character is played by Tobey Maguire, who transforms himself into an eccentric gangster to whom Nellie ends up owing a lot of money. Through some bizarre make-up and a deliciously over-the-top performance, Maguire leaves a huge impression in this film.

The glitz and glam of 1920s Hollywood are brought to life through some dazzling production design, with everything from costumes and hair to interior decorations often lighting up the screen in a bold way. Many scenes are edited with fast cuts to keep the energy flowing and there’s never a dull moment. But these seem to be aspects that some critics are finding work against the film, with some saying it’s too loud and too fast. It all comes down to taste and preference.

But while everything on the screen should have looked authentic and placed the audience in the 1920s, there’s just something about Babylon that doesn’t quite nail it. The cars, architecture and props all seemed like those of the era, but it’s the way in which the characters speak and act that comes across as too modern to be believable. That aspect feels like Chazelle missed the mark considerably.

And while every character’s story arc is concluded in a satisfying way, it’s unforgivable that a character as enchantingly bonkers as Nellie LaRoy is merely sent off with a newspaper article in the bottom corner of a front page. She deserved better.

If you like your films big, bold and loud, this is one you need to see. If you like your films a little more conservative and slow-paced, it might be best to avoid it. But if you fall into the former category, Babylon really does offer something wonderful, especially for anyone with a passion for cinema and its history.

Film critic Graeme Tuckett said it best in his own review:

‘If this is what failure looks like, then let's have more of it. I'd rather see a film that fails this boldly, than one that succeeds meekly, any day at all.’

Babylon is now showing in cinemas across Australia.

You can follow digital editor Dan Jensen on Twitter @DanJensenIA. Follow Independent Australia on Twitter @independentaus and on Facebook HERE.

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