The 1960s Italian filmmaker Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is in a creative slump and hasn’t written a word of the script for his new film. To placate the media, the film’s producer ostentatiously announces that Guido’s film will be about Italy “as a myth, as a woman, as a dream.” This description encapsulates Nine, a musical dripping in Italian chic, which borders on the fetishistic, about the mythology surrounding a great filmmaker, the women in his life and the dreams he slips into to make sense of it all. Nine is a cinematic adaptation of a 1982 Broadway musical, which was itself an adaptation of Federico Fellini’s playful, self-reflexive and semi-autobiographical 1963 film 8½. Nine was an excellent opportunity to make a cinematic spectacle but unfortunately director Rob Marshall has instead churned out a largely by-the-numbers musical.
Marshall’s biggest mistake is his very conservative approach towards the fantasy sequences. While Fellini intertwined the subjective and objective moments of 8½, blurring the boundary between reality and fantasy, Marshall frames all the musical numbers as fantasy scenes that are detached from the real world. It’s a stodgy and boring approach made worse by the fact that all the songs take place in a clearly delineated ‘dream-space’ that is an empty theatre stage with bits of half built scaffolding. Instead of breaking free of the restraints of Nines’s theatrical origins, Marshall has embraced them and the musical numbers suffer as a result. Marshall had a similar approach to the songs in his excellent 2002 film adaptation of Chicago but it suited the format of that show while it does not in the case of Nine.
Marshall’s unambitious approach means that despite the bevy of sultry backup dancers in corsets, fishnets and suspenders (aren’t we over this look in ‘sassy’ musicals yet?) the music numbers mostly lack excitement. This is a shame because the mainly all female cast do an excellent job. Day-Lewis is as reliably immersed in the part of Guido as always, but Nine belongs to Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren and Stacy Ferguson (Fergie) who are all in top form playing the women in Guido’s life. Cotillard (Public Enemies, La Vie en Rose) as his long suffering wife is perhaps the one who shines the most. She gets the best numbers, she is the best written character (the rest of the women are maternal figures or objects of desire) and the camera adores her.
There are moments in Nine where the combination of music, spectacle and subjective filmmaking is just right and the final sequence in particular hints at how great the rest of the film may have been. Otherwise Nine is a disappointment and it really needed a more inventive and unrestrained director, such as Alan Parker, Tim Burton or even Baz Luhrmann, to do it justice. While Fellini’s 8½ was a glorious melange of myths, women and dreams, Marshall’s Nine is the product of a neat freak whose determination to tidy everything up ruins all the fun.