For all its behind-the-scenes drama and scandal, with original director Bryan Singer removed from the production (although still credited) and replaced by Dexter Fletcher very far into filming, Bohemian Rhapsody is a safe, competent, decidedly non-scandalous biopic. It treats the life of Freddie Mercury with cautious affection, happy to play within the rules when depicting a man who did anything but.
This is the story of Queen more than it is of its frontman. It begins in 1970 with Freddie (Rami Malek), a flamboyant youth with a mouth full of too many teeth and too many notes, meeting Smile, a beige rock band that would become Queen through the power of Mercury’s charisma. It ends with Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985. The Freddie Mercury story would carry on for another six, very important years, but Bohemian Rhapsody is content to leave those to a brief, written pre-credits summary.
The film has a secret weapon: Rami Malek. As Mercury he is spectacular.
The inherent problem there is that while the story of Freddie Mercury is fascinating and deeply moving, Queen’s road to glory is relatively free of bump. The two tales do not demand equal balance. Anthony McCarten’s script struggles to inject much drama into Queen’s rise, which progresses smoothly from student gigs to sold-out stadiums in just a few years. It’s a cheerful trip through the hits, yet dramatically not very rich.
Mercury’s story makes much better viewing, even if the script would prefer to allude to a life passionately lived than show it. He gets almost all the good lines and offers an excess of material as a subject. There are some poor, strange choices when deciding where to focus, not least committing so much time to his relationship with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and virtually none to any happy gay relationship, romantic or otherwise. Mercury’s sex life and HIV diagnosis are dealt with briefly, watched in quiet montage, telling audiences no more than they already know. You can sense the concerned involvement of the surviving members of Queen in the film’s politeness. It often has the gentle innuendo of an obituary rather than the inquisitiveness of a biography.
However, the film has a secret weapon, firing off all over the place to try and blast the movie out of its gentility: Rami Malek. As Mercury he is spectacular. A strutting, flamboyant peacock among pigeons on stage; a party waiting to happen and too scared to leave it. There are other lights in the cast — Ben Hardy is a lot of fun as Roger Taylor — but Malek outshines them all, giving the material a wallop it needs. In the final sequence, which recreates Live Aid with a visual excitement lacking elsewhere, Malek wrings every second he has left, performing like it might be Freddie’s last time, and it’s very affecting. If the script hits a lot of bum notes, Malek is always perfectly in key.