David Garrett’s musicianship is the sole virtuosic element of “The Devil’s Violinist,” a creaky drama in which the world-renowned German violinist assumes the role of real-life 19th-century Italian violinist and composer Niccolo Paganini. Written and directed by Bernard Rose, who found success 21 years ago with his Beethoven-centric “Immortal Beloved,” a true story that was similarly given the fictionalized treatment, the film is proof of both Garrett’s titanic skill at putting bow to string, and his decidedly less accomplished gifts as an actor. Providing a performance that’s so wooden and unconvincing that his director habitually cuts away from his face during dialogue — the better to mask the awkwardness of his line deliveries — Garrett proves a washout in this formulaic period piece, whose minimal commercial prospects are unlikely to extend beyond the star’s most rabid fans.
Rose opens his tale with a cursory prologue scene in which a young Paganini is smacked by his father for writing and playing an inventive composition, though the subsequent story makes only passing reference to daddy issues as a cause of the violinist’s problems. Rather, as embodied by the long-haired Garrett as a morose brooder in dark overcoats and sunglasses, Paganini comes off as a proto-grunge rocker bitter over his lack of popularity. The mockery he receives at early shows amplifies his consuming despair, thus leaving him an ideal target for the mysterious Count Urbani (Jared Harris), who appears at the maestro’s door and promises him the fame and fortune he craves, so long as he agrees to sign a contract that promises Urbani unspecified domain over Paganini in both this life and the next.
Decked out with a cane, a black-and-red cape, and a pronged goatee, Urbani is instantly recognizable as the devil, and the Faustian bargain he strikes with Paganini nets the violinist instant stardom, even as the artist becomes consumed by addictions to drugs and gambling. Rose dramatizes his action by weighting his action’s focus away from Garrett’s blank-faced pouting and toward his other stars, who compensate by dispensing every expression and line reading with maximum hamminess. That includes not only the scenery-chewing Harris, but also Joely Richardson as a corrupt reporter with a head of exploding red curls, and Christian McKay as John Watson, a frazzled British promoter who succeeds in luring the in-disrepair Paganini to London for a series of shows that Watson hopes will alleviate his family’s severe financial troubles.
That development at least allows “The Devil’s Violinist” to properly showcase its headliners’ musical genius, particularly during a sold-out concert in which Paganini, arriving late and then wowing a crowd filled with screaming and fainting girls, blasts his way through intricate violin pieces with the type of shredding-showman flair that would make Eddie Van Halen proud. Yet as Paganini begins a romance with Watson’s daughter Charlotte (Andrea Deck), whose singing aspirations he encourages even as Urbani attempts to sabotage their union, the film resorts to hackneyed melodramatic scenarios that merely further highlight Garrett’s affected emoting.
Less stilted is Rose’s direction, which boasts a graceful fluidity that’s sorely lacking from his cast’s alternately under- and over-cooked turns. While his handheld cinematography serves as an occasionally clumsy means of heightening intimacy and immediacy, and his exterior shots of old-world London and New York are sabotaged by cheesy CG-enhanced matte-painting backgrounds, Rose’s stewardship is generally assured. His writing, however, is considerably less adept, resulting in one on-the-nose verbal exchange after another, and a narrative that eventually finds itself devolving into a morass of hastily sketched cliches.