Starring: Dorothy Dandrige, Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey
Director: Otto Preminger
Running Time: 105 mins
Carmen Jones is an American film about the story of a soldier whose life is turned upside down when he is seduced by the passionate Carmen Jones, but his love for her soon hits a roadblock.
Updating classic theatre to the modern day is always tricky – even more so when you’re switching language – and that difficulty is definitely apparent in Carmen Jones. While its most striking moments are just that, with an entertaining opening twenty minutes and a riveting finale, the majority of the film lacks the necessary energy and spark to really impress, ultimately proving a rather difficult to film to stay fully engrossed in right the way through.
Let’s start off with a comparison you may be a bit more familiar with. In 1996, director Baz Luhrmann updated William Shakespeare’s classic play to the modern day to make Romeo + Juliet, a film which I have very little affection for. That film took the original dialogue, but set the story in the vibrant setting of modern-day America, however failed to bring those two completely alien time periods together in a cohesive manner, making for a painfully frustrating watch.
Carmen Jones, adapting from Georges Bizet’s classic opera Carmen, tries things a little differently, but again proves that it’s not easy. Switching the setting from southern Spain to the USA, and centring around an army corporal, the film’s attempts to make things different and vibrant are both striking and admirable, and when it manages to get that modern-day setting working well with some of the darker elements of the classic story, Carmen Jones actually proves a rather brilliant watch.
However, the biggest problem with the adaptation comes in the form of its musical numbers. A point of tremendous power and drama in the original opera, this film fails to make the musical style match the story at hand, meaning that the classic movie musical downfall of distracting and jarring songs is worsened tenfold given that there’s an enormous clash of cultures that makes the film at times unwatchable.
With the exception of the opening number, which takes the renowned Habanera and translates it to ‘Dat Love’ in rather entertaining fashion, the biggest problem is that the film sees its predominantly African-American cast portraying working class characters suddenly break into high opera at random points throughout, a leap of the imagination that just didn’t work for me at any point.
The translations of the lyrics are often a little awkward, and seeing that genre of music in the middle of the setting at hand really doesn’t work here, meaning that every musical number proves jarring, and painfully breaks up any narrative flow that got going at the start, ultimately making it difficult to really stay engrossed by the movie throughout.
For me, the film could have been more effective if the story had remained a faithful adaptation of the opera, but the music genre were something a little more modern and appropriate to the setting – as such allowing you to stay invested in the world being created before you, rather than being regularly taken out of it by distracting opera every now and then.
Overall, Carmen Jones is ultimately a bit of a disappointing film. Although it’s a bold and different attempt at a modernisation of a classic opera, complete with some energetic and passionate performances, as well as some moments of intrigue and drama, it’s just far too incoherent an assembly of two completely different cultures, something that makes it rather difficult to engage with at any point, and that’s why I’m giving it a 6.8.