Adam Driver stars in Michael Mann’s biopic of racing driver turned business owner Enzo Ferrari
Now to be clear, I could not be less interested in either cars or people who care about cars, so Ferrari was always going to be quite a hard sell for me. But the measure of a good biopic is always its ability to create an enticing story about the person at its centre no matter its audiences’ previous knowledge of that person. It’s with some excitement then that the world has awaited the Enzo Ferrari biopic from one of Hollywood’s most respected veteran directors Michael Mann (Heat, The Last of the Mohicans.)
Rather than attempting to capture an entire life, Ferrari takes place over a period of only three months in the summer of 1957, a pivotal period for the supercar giant both personally and professionally. The Ferrari brand is in financial dire straits and facing bankruptcy as the factory is simply not selling enough cars to turn a profit. Meanwhile its racing arm is continually being beaten to the finish line by rivals Jaguar and Maserati; board members are convinced they must stop entering cars in these races and shift focus to the production line.
Boss Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) is convinced that it’s the racing that’s key to saving the business, and if they can just win more races this will drive an increase in sales. With this in mind he seeks to assemble a dream team of racing drivers to compete in the Mille Miglia, a prestigious but dangerous 1000-mile race across the Italian countryside.
On the home front Enzo is also in trouble, his long-suffering wife and business partner Laura (Penelope Cruz) has had enough of philandering ways, the couple having drifted apart after the death of their only son. When Laura finds out that Enzo’s relationship with mistress Lina (Shailene Woodley) is rather more serious than she had thought, she too threatens to destroy the business.
It’s all very stylishly put together as you would imagine from someone of Mann’s calibre; the sets and costumes immaculate, the 1950s race cars faithfully rebuilt, and the Italian countryside captured in gorgeous frames and colours. The race scenes are absolutely electric, a guttural sound design filling the auditorium with engine sounds so intense you feel like you’re sitting right there in the passenger seat. The angles at which he’s managed to capture the sleek red cars flying through the winding streets of Italian towns make for a truly immersive experience; it’s enough to make anyone actually invested in the racing.
Unfortunately for all the brilliance of the racing far too much time is given over to Ferrari’s personal life, which wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t so frequently boring at its worst moments and soapy at it’s best. Cruz is camping it up to the max playing the fiery and furious Laura, though her scenes reach telenovela levels of ridiculousness at some points. Woodley honestly might as well not even be there she’s given so little to do, and it made me wonder why they didn’t just cast a no name actor in the part.
It’s frustrating because in the interpersonal scenes between Ferrari and his drivers there’s a real spark of something great there, a hint of the true grit at the centre of this man that would make him a much more interesting figure. A dinner scene in which he essentially tells his drivers they either ‘’win or die’’ is particularly memorable, and you can’t help but think if Mann had solely dedicated his 2 hours to Ferrari’s relationship to racing it would have made a much better film than the frightfully dull romantic drama.
I was also slightly bewildered by the casting. 39-year-old Adam Driver playing then 60-year-old Enzo Ferrari with the aid of a bit of makeup is, well, fine, but fails to leave any lasting impact and he just doesn’t yet have the gravitas of an older man who has lived through such love and loss. The principal cast is entirely non-Italian and yet have been asked to perform in Italian accents, many of which are noticeably ropey and take you out of the story.
I’m sure there are plenty who will be enamoured of this film. It’s made with all the skill and beauty you would come to expect from a Michael Mann picture, and those who are genuinely invested in the life story of Enzo Ferrari will surely get something out of it. But most surprisingly for me, a racing sceptic, is that Ferrari really could have used less talking and more cars.
Ferrari had its UK premiere as the suprise film at the BFI London Film Festival. It will be released in cinemas on 26th December 2023