Wagner: A film by Tony Palmer

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Wagner
LABELS: Metrodome
PERFORMER: Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, William Walton, etc; LPO/Georg Solti
CATALOGUE NO: MTD 5189

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Hugely long, gloriously self indulgent, maddeningly circular in its structure Wagner is Wagnerian in every sense of that misused adjective. And probably only Tony Palmer, the bad boy of Television music films, would have dared to do it. In his penultimate screen role, Richard Burton plays Wagner as a monster: mendacious, racist and amoral, yet a musical genius.

A man who borrowed other men’s money and their wives and lives at will and yet a composer whose artistic vision nudged Western music drama in a new direction. The acting support is a veritable Debretts of British acting with Gielgud, Richardson and Olivier as Ludwig of Bavaria’s exasperated ministers.

Gemma Craven is perhaps too much an English Rose as Minna Wagner, but Vanessa Redgrave as Cosima is every inch the Master’s abject slave. And Charles Wood’s script manages to avoid too many of those parenthetic conversations in which historical characters introduce several pages of historical plot.

The structure of Wagner is another thing. In a self-consciously Wagnerian way Palmer, who is credited as his own film editor, keeps returning to unresolved moments in Wagner’s biography, particularly the 1848 Dresden Revolution that spawned the Ring and exiled him from Germany.

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Is this really the key to the man? The use of music has its Wagnerian precedent too, with Leitmotifs attached to repeated events and characters. But why is Cosima associated with the mysterious Fate theme from the Ring? However cinematographer Vittorio Storaro ensures that the eye is ravished even when the ear is offended. Wagner looks as handsome as a box of handmade chocolates. Christopher Cook