Thursday, 16 June 2011

Review: Senna

Rating: 12A  
Runtime: 106 min

In all honesty this biopic tale of the late Brazilian F1 driver would be more aptly titled Senna versus Prost (as per the name of Malcolm Folley's publication, The Story of the Most Deadly Rivalry in Formula One). The focus of this documentary from acclaimed film maker, Asif Kapadia, revolves around the real life, bitter rivalry and eventual hatred between two F1 greats. And to make it clear, this is not, I repeat not a film just for racing enthusiasts.

This docu-film just tips the 100 minute mark as it follows a young, gung-ho speedster, Ayrton Senna, from his early days as a Go Karting extraordinaire through to F1 champ. Kapadia journeys us through Senna's extraordinary career as he shoots into the limelight of Formula One, as the Brit director proves that he can successfully derive from fiction to tackle one of the most interesting, successful and talented drivers in its history.

Growing up I was aware of the talents of Ayrton Senna, but unbeknownst to me was the fascinating controversies and battles that took place with the likes of his once close team mate and friend, Alain Prost, and former FIA President, Jean-Marie Balestre. We witness snippets of Ayrton's personal life, his pride for his home nation Brazil, which includes his immense involvement in charity work. Kapadia shows the pressures that come with such fame which, combined with heartbreaking insights of inner feelings and religious beliefs, ultimately shape the film.

Whilst some of his earlier life is documented, Senna primarily focuses on his 10-year stint in Formula One where Kapadia methodically and chronologically progress through each year as we witness various highs and lows, triumphs and disappointments; we really begin to connect with the man behind the helmet.

What's brilliant about Senna is that the drama, tension, conflict, hatred, rivalry, action and twists are all real. It plays out superbly, interspersed wonderfully with voice over interviews from Senna's family and fellow professionals, as we get a sense of respect yet concern for the talented and, at times, reckless star. The fantastically arranged archive footage and contributions are perfectly interwoven to create atmosphere and high tension throughout, which contrast with bursts of his playboy wit and humour.

Keep your friends close: (from left) Prost & Senna.
As a film Senna has even more impact to those uneducated in F1, as per American audiences who went into its Sundance debut blissfully unaware of who the man was, let alone his eventual fate. To be unaware of such a character in the sporting world can be deemed a travesty, yet transforms the experience into a completely different film for those ill educated. Audiences who are aware of Senna's career and know its outcome- the intensity is just as captivating as a documentary, and is nonetheless utterly compelling. Kapadia manages to tug at every heart string and, by contrast, has you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. Not only is this great story telling fused with documentary making, it's an exhilarating roller coaster ride that glides through an eclectic array of scenes that never fail to grip, entertain, humour, shock or sadden.

Some of the footage is remarkable. The in-car camera of Senna's F1 vehicle is truly a wonderful (and bloody scary) insight into his world on the track. Not only is it fascinating that we get behind the wheel with him, but to witness the sheer speed he travels at makes Lewis Hamilton look like he's riding his push bike round the local park. Your heart will beat with every straight as he speeds towards corners and will thump even faster as he maneuvers with incredible precision through chicanes and round hairpin bends; we are exposed to the kind of driving that defined Ayrton as a racing genius.

The juxtaposition of his professional and private life is finely balanced. We see a man with ambition as he muses over future aspirations, desires and fears, as well as a expressing his religious faith. The latter cements itself as a reccuring theme and serves as a harsh poignancy towards the dramatic conclusion.

In honesty, as much as I can sit here and tell you about Senna, it's something you really need to experience for yourself. It draws you in, captures you emotionally and doesn't let go until the lump-in-the-throat ending hits. And as for the end of the film, referring to it as a finale or climax is a major injustice, as such a sad and gut wrenching final few scenes are worth a whole lot more and will challenge your inner most strength not to shed a tear. 

Utterly powerful and unforgiving at times, Senna takes us on an unforgettable journey that stays with you long after the final credits roll. Ayrton Senna remains an icon of his generation. A sporting great. One to be celebrated and certainly never, ever forgotten. Incredible.