Sisterly bond: Fantasia Barrino and Halle Bailey in ‘The Color Purple’.
THE COLOR PURPLE **** (141 minutes) M
Though it closely follows the dramatic contours of Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, this lavish film version of the Broadway musical (which drew on both) is very much its own creature – and what a beautifully-rendered, high-spirited, uplifting creature it is.
Set in America’s Deep South across the opening decades of the 20th century, we follow the sorrowful journey of Celie (Fantasia Barrino) who, with her loving sister Nettie (Halle Bailey, from The Little Mermaid) endure the abuses of their ghastly father Alfonso (Deon Cole).
He’s impregnated Celie twice, cruelly separating her from each newborn almost immediately, so leaving her with the emotional torture of not knowing where they are, who they are or even if they’re still alive.
More hardship comes when Celie is coupled with the deceptively charming Mister (Colman Domingo), who turns out to be another brute. He continues the violence and so resents Celie’s powerful bond with Nettie he kicks her out of the house and banishes her from Celie’s life. (In the pouring rain, no less.)
Thematically, it’s heavy going as the diffident Celie gradually draws on an inner strength to become her own person, yet the film is far from a downer, infused as it is with an infectious, life-affirming energy.
Without diminishing the gravitas of Celie’s assortment of ordeals, director Blitz Bazawule does a superb job balancing the narrative’s serious undertow with a celebratory optimism via a host of marvellously mounted, seamlessly blended musical numbers.
Apparently taking his cue from the classics, some are slightly heightened yet remain rooted in reality, with one of the film’s many highlights hosting a line of washer women toiling in front of a waterfall, all performing their chores in sync. It’s mesmeric.
Other sequences gleefully fly off into fantasy, with one remarkable number seeing characters appearing on a giant record player.
There’s a real depth of feeling to these often boisterous scenes, their ingenuity and choreography serving as tribute to the great musicals of Old Hollywood.
Indeed, a handful are so well done – with plenty of single takes and splendidly orchestrated tracking shots – one wonders how Gene Kelly or Busby Berkeley would have reacted to their intricate timing.
A central part of Celie’s journey, of course, is her love of the feisty jazz songstress Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), whose out-sized presence underscores the film’s palpable themes of sisterly love and self-respect.
The film was produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, who appeared in the film. Whoopi Goldberg, who played Celie for Spielberg, also has a cameo.
A beautiful, inspiring work, The Color Purple lands just a week after Mean Girls, another movie version of a Broadway musical adapted from a hit movie.
With everyone speculating about the future of mass-market cinema after Marvel fatigue and the rejection of woke Disney, perhaps a return to big-screen musicals will form part of the picture, along with biopics (Oppenheimer; Napoleon) and fluffy, light-headed comedies such as Barbie – which, come to think of it, was also a musical of sorts.