If you see Testimony (1988) — Tony Palmer’s unusual biopic on Dmitri Shostakovich — it will come as no surprise that the filmmaker worked with Ken Russell on Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World (1966) during Russell’s BBC days. (You might be more surprised to find that he co-directed Cream’s Farewell Concert for the BBC in 1969, and co-directed and co-wrote Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels in 1971.)
There’s no doubt that Palmer was influenced by Russell’s musical biographies; this film looks and feels for all the world like a Ken Russell BBC film from 20 years earlier, especially since most of the film is in black and white. For that matter, the BBC background of corner trimming and the use of stock footage and clips from other movies is well in evidence. Black and white was merely a fact of life in the 1960s, but here it’s a conscious artistic choice and it serves the film well. Indeed, Testimony is rarely less than fascinating — and Ben Kingsley gives a good performance as Shostakovich – although it tends to lack both the warmth and the fun of a Ken Russell picture.
The movie is too cerebral to strike much in the way of an emotional response, and at 157 minutes, it overstays its welcome. It also is a fairly impenetrable work that tends to eschew narrative for analysis, causing the viewer unfamiliar with the composer to get little more than an impression of the man’s life. Still, it’s adventurous filmmaking that does — or at least tries to do — the one thing that a film about a composer should do: allow the music to give form to the film. It may never quite soar, but it makes a truly admirable attempt that’s very worth watching.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke