'Madame Sousatzka' is a perfect one-woman show, and this show belongs to its star, Shirley MacLaine.
MacLaine, whose last screen appearance in 'Terms of Endearment' earned her an Academy Award, returns this time, directed by John Schlesinger, as an eccentric piano teacher who specializes in coaching - and maturing -- the brightest of her students. It a worthy follow-up to her last winning effort.
In fact, MacLaine's performance is so loaded with passion, wit and energy, that she fills the screen with her overblown character. Madame S, as she is called by her students, grew up the daughter of a famous Russian pianist, and was surrounded and coddledby the century's greatest musicians. In her old age, alone with no family but her students and the characters who live in the falling-down London apartment building where she lives, Madame S is painted and bejeweled and intolerant and smothering -- the quintessial mother and teacher, lovingly creating her brightest students with too much attention and care.
Yet it's her strength of character that propels her prodigies into the world, leaving her behind. It's a lesson usually as painful to the student as it is to Madame S.
'I just don't teach piano,' she says. 'I teach how to live.'
'Madame Sousatzka' describes one such encounter with a student in need of direction in both music and life. The eccentric teacher takes on Manek, a handsome 15-year-old prodigy of Indian heritage, played by Navin Chowdhry, but just as he is blossoming, the greedy art-for-profiteers try to woo his talent for their own purposes. Manek also finds himself in the midst of a jealous fight for control between Madame S, who is teaching him for his future, and his mother, played with both dreamy romance and hardboiled cynicism by Shabana Azmi, who keeps her son tied to his past.
Though Madame S is filled with the character's spirit and energy as portrayed by MacLaine, it is the smaller performances that really flesh out the movie and keep it from boiling over. Twiggy turns in a splendid performance as the gentle model who lives above Madame S and is trying to make it as a singer and songwriter. She is taken more seriously, however, for her good looks and easy style than her talent by most of the men she meets in the music business -- except Manek, who becomes infatuated with her.
The other two characters who inhabit Madame S's building are its owner, the gentile Lady Emily, played by Peggy Ashcroft, who is torn about whether to sell the decrepit building where she was born, and Cordle, played by Geoffrey Bayldon, an aging oseopath who finds modern London a different and more frightening place than the city he knew in his youth.
The movie was adapted to the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from a book by Bernice Rubens. Its incarnation onto the silver screen is a memorable film portrait of a multi-faceted and fascinating character, and a timeless story of separation, loss and the exhileration and uplifting nature of talent -- even when it is someone else's.
This movie is rated PG-13. Contains some violence.