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film review

The Color Purple

Directed by Blitz Bazawule

Written by Marcus Gardley, based on the novel by Alice Walker, and the musical by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, Stephen Bray and Marsha Norman

Starring Fantasia Barrino, Danielle Brooks and Colman Domingo

Classification PG; 140 minutes

Opens in theatres Dec. 25

The latest Hollywood musical to be marketed as anything but – after last weekend’s Wonka and next month’s Mean Girls update – The Color Purple arrives in theatres this Christmas Day as a confused byproduct of the industry’s best intentions and worst habits.

With elements of Steven Spielberg’s graceful if time-worn 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s landmark novel encased inside the brassy song-and-dance structure of the 2005 Broadway version, the many adaptive layers behind this new Color Purple end up washing away the original power of Walker’s words. When everything clicks just so, you’ll want to stomp your feet and stretch your arms to the sky. But when director Blitz Bazawule’s movie stumbles, it does so in a painfully awkward fashion.

The story here remains faithful to Walker’s 1982 novel about the traumas and triumphs of one Black family in the American south at the turn of the 20th century. In Georgia, young sisters Celie and Nettie try to survive life at the hands of their sexually abusive father. After Celie is forced into marriage with the local drunk Albert “Mister” Johnson, Nettie runs away, leaving Celie to endure decades of domestic horrors. This misery is only occasionally relieved by the bonds that the adult Celie (Fantasia Barrino) forms with the strong women who float in and out of her life, including Mister’s sometimes mistress, the vivacious showgirl Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), and Sofia (Danielle Brooks), the highly assertive wife of Mister’s son, Harpo (Corey Hawkins).

While a recent listening session of the “New Broadway” cast recording of the musical – which was restaged in 2015 starring Cynthia Ervo and Jennifer Hudson – reveals a production of tremendous soul and depth, much of that aural magic has been diluted or outright lost in Bazawule’s rework. The transitions from Celie’s terrifying home life to the sometimes sunny musical numbers can be jarring, with the kind of hesitant staging that suggests an uneasiness on the director’s part as to whether this should even work. The answer, more often than not, is no.

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Any time The Color Purple might get your eyes glued to the screen will be due to the remarkable cast.Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

Bazawule is only infrequently able to capture the entire scope of the biggest, dance-heavy numbers, including Mysterious Ways, the Gospel-infused opening number that should lift spirits but instead sinks them. The cuts are too quick, the background dancers’ bodies are oddly framed. It is all the more puzzling given Bazawule’s exceptional music and film background, including his startling 2018 feature debut The Burial of Kojo and his work with Beyoncé.

At 140 minutes, there are more times during which you might be eyeing the exit signs than the actual film. But it is a certainty that any time you might be glued to the screen will be due to the remarkable cast.

Brooks, who also starred in the 2015 Broadway revival, is a powerhouse as the take-no-guff Sofia, a performance that’s all the more impressive once the story cuts the character’s pride down in a devastating fashion. American Idol’s Barrino also gives the entirety of herself over to Celie and her struggles – even if the script doesn’t match the heights of and layers to her performance. And Empire scene-stealer Henson, as ever, devours the screen each time she shows up, which is hardly ever enough.

Domingo, who has enjoyed a busy fall season thanks to his stellar work in the civil-rights biopic Rustin, tries to do his own unique twist on Mister, layering on the charm where Danny Glover injected venom in Spielberg’s version. But Domingo cannot quite get to what Walker was initially conveying with the complicated character, and so Mister’s final act of contrition seems forced.

As the number Keep It Movin’ reminds the characters, “Life can never break your soul.” But this version of The Color Purple cannot find the right mix of the latter to ensure the former.

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Taraji P. Henson as Shug Avery, left, Barrino as Celie, centre, and Danielle Brooks as Sophia.Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

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