Fox Searchlight's new film, A Bigger Splash — opening in limited release today and wide May 13th — concerns itself with rockstars, failed relationships and gorgeous island vistas, but its greatest asset is Ralph Fiennes.
The actor, known for repressed and aloof roles, comes alive and unhinged as record producer Harry Hawkes. He drinks, seems to know everyone he encounters and embraces life with a terrifying and sometimes tiring intensity. He's that old friend or ex who comes through town like a storm and despite having moved beyond him, there's something undeniably magnetic about his presence.
But that is the conflict facing Tilda Swinton's rockstar Marianne Lane and her new beau, Paul, played by Matthias Schoenaerts. The pair are vacationing on the volcanic Italian island of Pantelleria. Marianne is recovering for a vocal injury while on tour and is forced to spend most of the film mute or uttering a few lines in a hollow whisper. But despite her ailment, the two are definitely enjoying a carefree holiday of few clothes and lots of sex.
Then comes Harry with his newly discovered daughter Penelope in tow. And just like that, the film pivots as he takes the group to a very informal and exclusive restaurant. He also figures out a way to stay at the couple's rented villa. Is everyone uncomfortable? Sure! Marianne and Harry used to be a couple and he actually introduced her to his old friend Paul when he was ready to move on, so there's plenty of discomfort under the surface. But every cut to Swinton reveals she's happy to see the man who approaches everything with a shout.
And this is the film's other magic trick. Constrained essentially to mime, Swinton is formidable against Fiennes' performance. His volume is contrasted and occasionally controlled by Swinton's seeming silence. With a glance, she commands attention as well as he does with an exuberant statement or gesture. Marianne's presence, even muted, is also key to Harry's real reason for coming the island. He consistently suggests to her that she should come out of seclusion and get back in the recording studio, but it hides another — eventually obvious — agenda.
The film is meandering and not terribly concerned with its plot for most of its runtime. But for the most part, it's a fun trip as Harry coaxes the group to head into town for a local festival, gets Marianne to do silent karaoke with him to the delight of townsfolk and his showstopping dance to The Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue" — a track he claims to have contributed a key element to. The holiday is backed by the wonderful location and tremendous camerawork by Yorick Le Saux. Even if a bit showy, it is interesting to see the camera behave almost like another character irresistibly pulled toward Harry even when it wants to look elsewhere.
Of course, the film is not free of flaws. Penelope — played by Dakota Johnson — is largely a distraction and she never comes off young as the character claims to be. A subplot about her inappropriate closeness to Harry is never examined and it seems like she is only around to add an unwelcome melodrama to the proceedings. Which may have been Harry's plan all along, but when Fiennes is pulling out all the stops, she seems like an afterthought.
But perhaps the single greatest flaw comes late in the film after another event pivots the tone and temper of the film. The event itself is the climax, but the film continues for another fifteen or twenty minutes unaware that the story is already over. Nothing that occurs after the climax informs the film in meaningful way. Instead, it introduces and immediately drops a half-baked murder mystery thread.
Despite that and a few other pacing issues, A Bigger Splash holds itself together with two great performances and the amazing spectacle of Fiennes shedding the robes, waistcoats and detached air — literally and figuratively — of many of his previous roles. And like that friend who lives life a little too much, Fiennes performance will leave a few fond memories behind.