Reshaping his physique, his mannerisms and even his accent, Spanish actor Javier Bardem more than deserved his Best Actor nomination at this year's Oscars. The broad shouldered hunk of the likes of Jamòn, Jamòn and Live Flesh is unrecognisable at times as the slight, fey Arenas. But his performance is more than just a collection of physical tics - Bardem's hugely expressive face gives aching voice at times to the pain, as well as the joy, that Arenas suffers as he goes through abuse, imprisonment and ultimately AIDS. He's something special.
What makes his achievement even more striking is the fact that this true-story adaptation isn't a great film. Modern artist and painter, Julian Schnabel has directed one other film - 1996's Basquiat - and it shows. He may have a vivid grasp of imagery which gives Before Night Falls a mystical beauty at times (Arenas' visions/fantasies of his mother, for example) but he never really seems bothered by the constraints of simply telling a story.
Oh sure, the film has the trappings of standard biopic - dates and places etc - but Schnabel never really tries to pull the narrative together. Crude date-stamping aside, there's no real sense of time passing, and while episodes of Arenas' life are sometimes linked, you're often left guessing how he got from one state to another.
Then there's the much-heralded cameos by Sean Penn (as a wise yokel) and Johnny Depp (as a drag queen and, confusingly five minutes later, a prison guard). Feeling like they were dropped in from other, much more conventional movies, their magnetic Hollywood mugs throw an already out-of-kilter movie even further off balance. When two fleeting cameos are the only performances - apart from Bardem's - that stick in your memory, something's gone very wrong.
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With this performance behind him, actor Javier Bardem will make the leap to Hollywood big-time. Director Julian Schnabel won't. But maybe he doesn't want to. If this film is anything to go by, he prefers beautiful moving images to proper moving pictures.