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I’m Not There

Rated M
Staring Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere and others

Bob Dylan, the man who wrote the famous line “The times they are a-changing”, has himself been written about perhaps more than any other modern musician, helping ensure that his legend has loomed large for almost 50 years.

He has inspired countless artists, musicians, and a number of documentaries including Don’t Look Back, the groundbreaking cinema verite account of his 1965 tour of England. And clearly, with the appearance of a new Todd Haynes feature that takes a suitably unconventional look at an unconventional life Dylan’s work as Inspirational Icon is not yet done.

I’m Not There falls into the “admirable but not always enjoyable” category of film. It is, without doubt, necessarily brave and innovative — frankly a standard biopic would never have sufficed as homage to Dylan — but it is also one of those movies from which people will leave the cinema discussing the degree to which it succeeds or doesn’t succeed.

For the most part the critics seem to have decided it succeeds. The Guardian said it was “a powerfully reverent exercise in remystification”, The Hollywood Reporter called it “inventive and very unusual”, and Time Out thought it “an extraordinary puzzle”. But many who flock to see it will no doubt be confused and put off by its uncompromising refusal to follow of the typical narrative principles audiences expect, and those with less than an advanced knowledge of Dylan’s life will miss certain cues embedded in its fractured telling. The characterisation, while brilliantly toying with the many personas Dylan has inhabited over the years, will also unsettle many viewers, and the casting, while downright bold, will also annoy those inclined to the literal. Todd Haynes must have known that flying in the face of so many cinematic rules would lead many to side with those critics who called it “tiresome and plodding”, “too long”, and “incoherent”.

Cate Blanchett has been universally singled out and praised for her astonishing portrayal of “Jude”, the enigmatic superstar Dylan. Her Golden Globe winning performance is sure to go down in history as one of the most brilliant pieces of acting ever recorded. Try as hard as they might — and a few turn in impressive performances of their own — the rest of the cast can’t help but pale in comparison.

Some of the storylines and Dylans, interweaving in a seemingly random fashion that probably makes some kind of metaphoric sense, are more engaging and convincing than others. Blanchette’s is hands down the most compelling and it comes closest to revealing the soul and self harboured within the construct. Ben Whishaw as a young, playfully poetic Dylan under interrogation also impresses, and Christian Bale pulls off his bit.

Heath Ledger’s turn as lover and father reveals yet another side of Dylan, hinting at the suffering of a man trapped in his own fame and limited, as we all are, by his own humanity. It’s a performance that will, in light of his recent untimely death, become known as one of his last.

Charlotte Gainsbourg does a nice job of playing the character based on Sara, his most memorable paramour and muse, and while this strand of narrative pulses with promise and an initially exuberant then increasingly weighty atmosphere it is ultimately frustrating in that it never quite delivers insight into this critical relationship. The least successful piece of the pie to my mind is the old Americana/freak show town drama featuring Richard Gere. Baffling at best and creepy at worst I found myself longing for Blanchett to return to the screen.

Julianne Moore is good as an incarnation of Joan Baez in interview mode and Michelle Williams is transformed as the spirit of Warhol side-kick Edie Sedgewick, about whom Dylan is said to have “Just Like a Woman”.

I’m Not There is unquestionably an important film, and one that captures and explores Dylan’s consciousness with resonance, but ultimately it is, just like the personas it represents, doomed to be a construct that fails to reveal the deeper stirrings of the heart of a great artist. It is a heart that Dylan has kept protected from the public for decades. And so if what you seek is to get close to Dylan’s core your best bet is to return once again to his lyrics.

Reviewed by Meera Atkinson