Maestro ★★★★ — Jewish Renaissance

There was criticism from the Hispanic community that British actor Carey Mulligan was chosen to play Bernstein’s Costa-Rican wife; in fact, Felicia’s father was an American Jew. Ethnic casting is a sensitive issue: in 1958, Danny Kaye turned down the role of Noel Airman in Marjorie Morningstar, considering it “too Jewish” (Gene Kelly took it up instead). Maestro met with controversy over a non-Jew donning a false nose to look more like the composer, yet Cooper’s Bernstein convinces us, not just with Kiri Hiro’s prosthetics, but through stance and movement and the voice that deepens and changes over the years. Josh Singer, Cooper’s co-writer, is Jewish and there is no antisemitism in this film, except for its acknowledged existence in American society: Bernstein was advised to change his surname to Burns.

There were other struggles too. When Bernstein reassures his teenage daughter Jamie that the rumours about his sexuality are not true, he wears a t-shirt inscribed with the name of Harvard in Hebrew letters. The denial was false. By this time, Bernstein’s homosexual dalliances were less discreet and had become the subject of gossip. His three children discovered the truth later. Felicia knew from the beginning, but she still chose to marry him.

The film makes no mention of Bernstein’s political daring and his involvement in the civil rights movement; he supported and promoted black musicians and conductors and marched in Selma with Harry Belafonte. For today’s audiences, that may seem more relevant than the marriage of a gay man to a woman. “You and I are able to be many things at once,” Bernstein tells Felicia. “That’s how we survive”. The film reveals some of the contradictions of a creative genius, a man capable of enormous affection for many people; who tells Felicia that, as a child, he fantasised about killing his cruel father. It portrays Bernstein and Felicia’s complicated relationship that, despite its challenges and her disappointment, was filled with love and often joyous.

By Irene Wise

Maestro is out now in select cinemas and available to stream on Netflix from Wednesday 20 December.

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