Dir: Kirsten Sheridan. US/Korea 2007. 111mins.
August Rush opens as it means to continue - with a young boy up to his eyes in corn. But you have to hand it to director Kirsten Sheridan: the sheer dewy-eyed belief in miracles of this music-based fairy tale is persuasive, and those who are prepared to forgive the film its stock characters and lack of emotional subtlety may allow themselves to be ravished - by the sumptuous soundtrack, if nothing else.
Sheridan hits the magic realist button even more insistently than she did in her debut Disco Pigs, building a whole film on folk-tale coincidences, emotional sixth senses and an abandoned child's miraculous, untaught musical talent. There are plenty of overt references to Oliver Twist, but Sheridan doesn't have Dickens' talent for mixing sentiment, comedy and social observation, and although there are moments when the fable takes flight, there are too many others when the director's equal and opposite desires for fantasy and realism end up knocking each other out. But you couldn't accuse the film of lacking heart, and the original music which permeates every scene is nicely integrated with the drama.
Distributors may have problems, though, knowing exactly where to pitch August Rush. With its grand-passion romantic suplot this is not obviously a young kids' film, and most teenagers are way too cool for this level of orchestrated sentiment. And unlike, say, Finding Neverland, the fairy tale is not grounded in the kind of serious character study that adults generally appreciate. It's one of those family films that may end up not quite doing it for anyone in the family. Warner is right to target the Christmas market with a Nov 21 US release date: this is one of those films that probably looks a lot better after three glasses of sherry.
Freddie Highmore plays Evan, the other-worldly hero whose adopted name gives the film its title. Eleven years old and alone in New York after running away from a boys' home, Evan falls in with a gang of busking street kids who are looked after, and exploited, by Wizard, an improbable cowboy Fagin played with hammy comic menace by Robin Williams. Evan can hear music in nature and random city sounds, and when he reveals himself to have a remarkable musical talent, hammering out songs untaught on the guitar, he is given the stage name August Rush by Wizard, who sees the young prodigy as his ticket to riches.
In flashback, the film introduces Even/August's parents whom he is desperate to find. Louis Connelly (Rhys Meyers), a spike-haired Irish rock musician, and angelic classical cellist Lyla Novacek (Russell), share a night of passion on a New York rooftop before being parted. At a certain point it dawns on one: August Rush is actually an old-fashioned cartoon dressed up in live-action clothes.
Fresh from the plaudits heaped on her performance in Waitress, Russell has the intensity to light up a cliched role and nearly carry the whole film. But though the fable builds its own momentum after a while, it's still difficult not to feel suffocated by this parade of social workers with hearts of gold, jive-talking Artful Dodger street kids, and adoring punters ready to fall at the feet of the busking prodigy whose main innovation is that he bangs the guitar where others strum. A gospel choir scene is equally hokey - but at least it has the best song in a film that, in the end, finds salvation in its music.
The soundtrack ranges from indie rock to bluegrass to classical, mixing Bach and Elgar with new pieces by original score composer Mark Mancina (who represents the film's best chance of an Oscar nod).
Southpaw Entertainment (US)
CJ Entertainment (Korea)
(44) 20 7520 5610
Richard Barton Lewis
James V Hart
Jonathan Rhys Meyers