The Plot: Modena, 1957. Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) is the head of the family’s car company. He’s less interested in production cars and more interested in racing cars, pushing himself to design a better engine to deal with the dangerous curves of a racetrack. He’s not in a financially healthy position, with his estranged wife Laura (Penelope Cruz) pushing him to team up with a competitor. She also blames him for the death of their young son. He also has a mistress, Lina (Shailene Woodley) with whom he has harboured a secret that could challenge the family name. With all these opposing forces against him, he must focus on his drivers winning the Mille Miglia race across Italy…
The Verdict: Michael Fassbender isn’t the only Michael in the film industry that’s an avid petrolhead. Veteran director Michael Mann has long been a fan of racing cars and has been trying to get a film about Enzo Ferrari onto the racing track for some three decades. He did serve as a producer on Le Mans ’66, but that wasn’t enough. Now 80, Mann has perhaps reflected that it’s time to get Ferrari out of his system and onto the screen. He’s ideally suited to it too, being the king of cool-blue, star-driven filmmaking which emphasises character and a certain sense of filmmaking panache. After the forgettable Blackhat, it’s good to have him back on fine form with Ferrari. It relates a crisis point in the car maker’s life as he battles both personal and professional demons in the fiercely competitive world of car racing.
Ferrari isn’t quite the film one expects it to be and that’s refreshing for a change. Mann places the film halfway between mainstream and arthouse filmmaking, taking the best aspects of both and blending them together to form a probing character study. It has the roaring thrill of the race, but also the character depth required to figure out what made Ferrari tick. It’s an intriguing mix of styles which work together well enough to drive the film forward with a strong sense of purpose. The script by Troy Kennedy Martin shows no signs of creakiness, given that it’s been 13 years since he last wrote a script. It’s fast-moving, streamlined writing which has its basis in a book by Brock Yates, portraying Ferrari as a serious man who is mostly business-oriented with people – including his own team of drivers.
Mann does something further unexpected by suggesting that, when it comes to winning, it’s not so much about the racing car but about the driver. There’s less of the technical aspects of driving and more about the kind of drivers who are willing to risk their lives at high speed for the glory of the win. The stakes are raised higher here by having the climactic race go through towns, cities, country roads and mountains rather than the self-contained world of the professional racing track. This comes at more than a financial cost in the film’s most startling sequence, which did indeed happen. Adam Driver convincingly plays older than he actually is, delivering his lines in a measured, softly-spoken voice but with conviction. He’s the centre of calm while everything else – a jealous and manipulative wife, circling competitors, the hounding press – attempt to bring him down one gear at a time.
Driver is excellent throughout in the kind of deeply committed performance that deserves attention, but could be overlooked in favour of the more obvious choices when the Oscar nominations roll around in January. There’s strong support too from Penelope Cruz and Shailene Woodley, the latter in the kind of role that might be thankless in the hands of a lesser director. Instead, she works wonders with it to give her equal footing with Cruz’s character. Ferrari then is on track for success early on and throughout. It’s a revealing insight into the mind of both a master racing car entrepreneur and a master filmmaker who is still working at full throttle.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
On track for success
Ferrari (US / UK / Italy / China / 15A / 131 mins)
In short: On track for success
Directed by Michael Mann.
Starring Adam Driver, Penelope Cruz, Shailene Woodley, Jack O'Connell, Patrick Dempsey, Giusesppe Festinese.