Evita (1996)

D: Alan Parker
S: Madonna, Antonio Banderas, Jonathan Pryce

The challenge facing the director of a stage adaptation is usually one of 'broadening-out'. The confines of a stage production frequently inspire spectacular innovation in a theatre director, but for a film director offer difficulties in the logistics of expanding the tableau to use the cinematic visual narrative to the full. Certain types of plays don't convert well, and some do, though often the success or failure depends on the director. Alfred Hitchcock's version of Juno and the Paycock must rate among the worst stage adaptations ever filmed, virtually reproducing the play on a single set in front of the camera with undue reverence to the classic stage production upon which it was based. On the other hand, James Foley's take on David Mamet's Glengarry Gless Ross was just claustrophobic enough to seem like cinema.

For Alan Parker, director of musical films from Bugsy Malone and Fame to The Commitments, the opportunity to broaden out the Broadway musical based on the life of Eva Peron (actress wife of controversial Argentinean President Juan Peron) must have been exciting. Certainly the film he has made is spectacular beyond the wildest expectations of a theatre goer, and offers a broad cinematic canvas upon which to paint the larger than life tale of an ambiguous and interesting figure. But there is something fundamentally wrong with it. There is a sense that somehow it should never have been a musical, that the lingering attachments to the stage play have robbed it of its cinematic integrity. There is something forced and artificial about characters bursting into song against such lavish and realistic backdrops, and a sense that there was a good film lurking underneath a musical that didn't require music in the first place.

On stage, Evita would necessarily have invoked a sense of scale and place which Parker needed only to move his cameras to the proper location and hire suitable extras to shoot. On stage, the artifice of dramatic action within an enclosed space is granted certain licence by an audience, allowing a certain level of obviousness that the cinema does not necessarily permit. But here, characters drift in and out of beautifully decorated sets and ravishingly filmed locations playing out sometimes asinine emotional scenes through the medium of song.

It's not as if musical film is not a form unto itself. There have even been successful film adaptations of musical plays before. But the relentless theatricality of the singing performances of the actors in this film becomes alienating, and though Madonna and Pryce are particularly good, Banderas is sometimes a little laughable as our all-too intense narrator. This seems at once a truly cinematic enterprise and a curiously anti-cinematic one. The two threads do not meet half way until near the end, where Banderas and Madonna share a duet and dance which finally matches visual and theatrical mise en scène. The result is an uncomfortable viewing experience which nonetheless benefits from splendid production and earnest effort from all concerned.

There is certainly an interesting story here, and it has the benefit of being critical of its central character without being negative or sycophantic. But this stems as much from the original musical as anything Parker brings to the film, and indeed it is somewhat disappointing to see the capacity to produce a non musical version of the story (or at least a less theatrical one) wasted in this manner.

There are those who may enjoy it simply on the level of spectacle, and there are plenty of things to admire. But to my mind, it is a disappointing result of great time, talent and expense which perhaps is not necessarily anyone's fault so much as an inevitable consequence of misjudging the process of adaptation.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.