First Night: Filth and Wisdom, Berlin Film Festival, Berlin

Madonna's first foray into directing falls flat

Kaleem Aftab
Thursday 14 February 2008 01:00

Madonna's first attempt at directing a film is a huge surprise in that it is a light-hearted, feel-good comedy in the style of Working Title.

Unfortunately, the Working Title film it most resembles is Love Actually. The humour is slight and the directing often perfunctory, with Madonna failing to get more than ordinary performances from her cast.

Filth and Wisdom stars Eugene Hutz, best known as the lead singer of the Gypsy-Romany band Gogol Bordello. The musician with the circus strongman moustache has become a fast friend of Madonna and joined her on stage at last year's Live Earth concert. He made his debut in 2005's Everything is Illuminated as an outré Ukrainian with a line of anecdotes dressed up as traditional proverbs. Imagine Borat without implausible excesses.

He uses similar tics to play Andrly "AK" Krystian, a Ukrainian singer who has arrived in London to seek superstardom with his Gypsy-funk band. Instead of acting, he just plays himself. He is also the narrator and point of contact with the ensemble that Madonna has brought together to paint a rosy picture of multicultural London.

AK shares his house with his girlfriend Holly (Holly Weston), a pretty ballerina who can't find work, and Juliette, who works in a pharmacy while she tries to raise sufficient funds to volunteer as an aid worker in Africa.

Their problems and attempts at finding happiness seem to have come straight out of a two-bit biography of Madonna: AK performs role-play as a cross-dresser, Holly takes up pole-dancing and Juliette steals drugs from the pharmacy. Having set up interesting characters and themes that threaten intrigue, Madonna lets the movie spiral into a series of vignettes as less interesting side characters are given way too much screen time: AK's favourite employee is a blind poet played by a grey-haired Richard E Grant, Holly is protected from the strip-club owner (Stephen Graham) and the resident Nigerian DJ (Ade) by a more experienced dancer (Francesca Kingdon), and the pharmacist Sardeep (Inder Manocha) is frustrated with his marriage. It made me wonder if Madonna spends her evenings at home in England studying EastEnders.

This 80-minute film started life as a half-hour short and somehow more than doubled its screen time. I wished it hadn't as there are too many over-long musical montages and poorly executed scenes.

The comedy aimed at all ethnic groups often falls flat. The funniest scene sees Holly, in a school uniform, forcing a stripper dancing to Madonna's "Erotica" off stage while the DJ decides to play Hit Me Baby One More Time in homage to the Britney Spears video. The scene highlights the area where Madonna truly excels and unsurprisingly it is an excellent soundtrack.

On this evidence Madonna has a long way to go as a film-maker. To her credit, she makes the most out of a poor script – and at least it stops her acting herself.

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