Film of the week: Behind the Candelabra (15)

A biopic with everything in immoderation

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The Independent Culture

Based on Scott Thorson's 1988 tell-all memoir of the same name, Steven Soderbergh's account of life behind the closed doors of Liberace's palatial mansion is an opulent, frequently joyous but hermetic film, about an unequal and inevitably doomed love affair.

Michael Douglas gives a virtuoso rendition of the pianist in his Las Vegas years, portraying him as a decadent and childish narcissist with a veneer of charm as thin as the hair beneath his bouffant wigs.

But Matt Damon is equally good as Thorson, a young man from a broken home who became one in a succession of good-looking young men whose companionship Liberace paid for – and who was thus treated as a possession as much as a lover, surrogate son and employee.

The film is at its best in the first act, as a comedy of manners and an askance look at that weird time in the Seventies when large middle-American audiences could delight at such a camp and flamboyant performer, dressed in rhinestone and ostrich feathers, and have no idea that he was gay – a state of denial that the film implicates in Liberace's unrestrained behaviour in private.

The film earns big laughs from his vulgar tastes and the era's worst fashions. But the second half of the film tells a more familiar, less enjoyable story, about Thorson's drug dependency and the end of the affair.