119 minutes/In Cinemas/3 Stars

The story: This biopic about the flamboyant American pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) focuses on the last 10 years of his life and his secret relationship with his lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon).

The film is based on Thorson’s memoir, Behind The Candelabra: My Life With Liberace (1988). Liberace died of an Aids-related illness in 1987.

Liberace was a showman who knew how to play the crowd as well as he could tinkle the ivories. Excess was his trademark, from the candelabra on his piano to the gaudy costumes he was decked out in.

In this biopic, director Steven Soderbergh strips away the smiley public facade to show us the insecure and controlling man beneath.

While Liberace had to hide his sexuality to the extent of suing those who insinuated he was gay, he was not simply a victim either.

He was a rich celebrity who was aware of the clout he wielded and the film explores the uneven power dynamic between Liberace and the much younger Thorson. Creepily, he wanted to remake Thorson over in his own likeness.

Both actors are good, particularly Michael Douglas. The role is something of a departure for him as he has tended to play more strong masculine types in movies such as Wall Street (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992).

 

Here, he is believable as a showy queen with a fondness for pretty young boys. Remarkably, throat cancer has not halted his acting career.

Matt Damon also gets to show his range – his role of a secret live-in lover here is a stark contrast to the buff hero he plays in the sci-fi flick Elysium, which coincidentally opens on the same day in Singapore.

His Thorson is not a complete innocent but someone who goes into the relationship with his eyes open. Fascinatingly and impressively, the actor appears to change not just his body shape but also his facial shape over the course of the movie.

The relationship between Liberace and Thorson eventually sours and legal wrangling follows as the younger man sues for a share of the pianist’s estate. The process offers up a different perspective as it casts a coolly clinical eye on their all-but-in-name marriage.

Throughout the film, Soderbergh injects sly humour – look out for Rob Lowe, who is a hoot as a plastic surgeon whose skin is stretched so taut, his eyes are hooded slits.

But the film could have benefited from the punchier pacing of Soderbergh’s last film, the continually surprising Side Effects (2013).

It remains to be seen whether the film-maker is merely taking a break from film-making or retiring completely, as he had announced. His recent works suggest he is not quite done telling stories in this medium.