Prolific filmmaker Tony Palmer has contributed many works to the biopic genre, including studies of composers Brahms, Handel, Puccini and a ten-hour television series on Wagner. Though Testimony only runs for about a quarter of that length, this ponderous biopic of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich often feel like it’s twice as long. The end result is not so much a testimonial, but a dirge.
Opening at Shostakovich’s funeral, mourners dutifully parade by his open casket while an announcer reels off the composer’s many achievements. Ben Kingsley's narration drowns out the address with Shostakovich’s own caustic observations of not only this spectacle, but every other phase of his life. Dialogue is rarely used and when it is it primarily consists of lengthy monologues of characters talking at, rather than with, Shostakovich. Five years after winning an Academy Award for his brilliant turn as the architect of passive resistance, Ben Kingsley’s performance in this biopic is merely passive.
Filmed in black & white on stylized sets and bleak landscapes Testimony looks and sounds like an over-directed student film, albeit peopled with familiar faces. Ronald Pickup portrays Shostakovich’s friend Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Robert Stephens cameos as Vsevolod Meyerhold and Terence Rigby as Stalin sports both a ridiculous moustache and, like the rest of the cast, a veddy, veddy British accent. The narrative, such as it is, is occasionally interrupted by non-sensical sequences, newsreel clips and modern performances of Shostakovich’s work.
Also thrown into the mix is footage from October 1917. However unlike Eisenstein, who used his montages to heightened the impact of his images, Palmer’s Testimony remains a jumbled mess.
as Dmitri Shostakovich
as Vsevolod Meyerhold
The authenticity of the memoirs on which this film is based is hotly contested.
No scene recreations in this biopic, only scenes of Shostakovich wandering aimlessly through a film studio.