Watching a filmed version of a theatrical performance can be a strangely airless experience. The beauty of live theater is that it’s never quite the same way twice, and capturing it on film can flatten the performance out, erasing the charged expectancy of the audience and the anything-can-happen excitement of the stage. But “Barrymore,” a filmed version of Christopher Plummer’s Tony Award-winning one-man show about legendary actor John Barrymore, mostly avoids this fate. You wish you could be seeing this performance live, as it’s meant to be seen — but lacking that, “Barrymore” on the big screen provides its own thrills.
Plummer won his Tony for the play (written by William Luce, adapted and directed here by Erik Canuel) back in 1997; now he’s clearly a little old for the role. (Barrymore, a troubled alcoholic, died at 60, a shadow of his former self; Plummer, though still vigorous, is now in his early 80s.) But he’s that rare actor who knows exactly what to do in front of a camera and an audience, and “Barrymore” is filled with both blustering hamminess and quiet, moving nuances.
It’s set in 1942, shortly before Barrymore’s death, as he tries, tipsy and trembling, to rehearse his trademark role as Shakespeare’s Richard III. There’s a bit of banter with an offstage prompter (played, in shadow, by John Plumpis), but mostly it’s Plummer alone, creating magic. At one point, he holds and strokes an imaginary cat, and I swear you can see the feline; at another, he speaks Hamlet’s line “What a piece of work is man,” with such gentle wonder you feel as if no one had ever said the words before. Canuel does some “opening out” of the play — sending us to the streets, to Barrymore’s dressing room, to an empty theater with a movie playing — but it just clutters up a film that doesn’t need anything extra. Plummer finds the pathos in his character delicately, never overplaying even while capturing a personality larger than life; watching it is a master class in acting, wisely preserved.
Note: “Barrymore” plays with the 45-minute behind-the-scenes documentary “Backstage with Barrymore”; not available for review.
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