For the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival I figured I’d try and keep some kind of a review diary covering each of the 20 or so films I’m planning to see. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.

Behind-the-CandelabraThe sparkly icing on a long day at the NZIFF, Behind the Candelabra is a stylistically typical piece from Steven Soderbergh, but surprisingly has a huge heart that we don’t often get from the often clinical director. If it truly is his cinematic swansong, he has chosen to go out in fabulous style.

Before the film I only had a vague idea of who Liberace (Michael Douglas) was, mostly gleaned through parodical pop culture references, and he is such a product of his time that it’s not really surprising that he isn’t more commonly known today. Behind the Candelabra isn’t specifically about the piano virtuoso however, but about Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), Liberace’s aide, semi-adopted son, and live-in lover.

Soderbergh treats us to snippets from the final decade or so of Liberace’s life, from his initial meeting with Thorson, and through the rollercoaster ride of their relationship from it’s lusty, decadent highs to the jealous and drug-affected decline. Damon transforms throughout the course of the film from shy country kid to subservient houseboy and ultimately paranoid addict very convincingly, but Beyond the Candelabra really belongs to Douglas.

Much as the man himself must have, Douglas dominates the space with his portrayal of Liberace. He’s camp without being crass, and commits to the performance with every fibre,  pitching it perfectly in each moment. Having been largely absent from the screen or retreading bland familiar territory for so long, he reminds us why he’s one of the greats, and it’s wonderful to know he still has the capacity for this kind of performance. Were Behind the Candelabra a theatrical release and not made for HBO, there’s no question he would be in the hunt for his third Oscar come February.