Back to Black review – wildly uneven portrait of Amy Winehouse

<span>‘Thankless gig’: Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse in Back to Black.</span><span>Photograph: Dean Rogers</span>
‘Thankless gig’: Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse in Back to Black.Photograph: Dean Rogers

For relative newcomer Marisa Abela, landing the role of Amy Winehouse in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s biopic is simultaneously a dream role for a rising actor and the toughest, most thankless gig imaginable. Winehouse’s bottled lightning charisma, her naked emotional honesty, her lived-in-the-moment intensity, her voice – it’s almost impossible to replicate without tipping over into Camden crawl costume party territory. There are moments when Abela disappears and Winehouse bursts on to the screen, like a magic eye picture blinked fleetingly into focus. But the film is wildly uneven and prone to catastrophic misjudgments – in that at least it’s true to Winehouse’s spirit.

Abela goes all out trying to replicate Winehouse’s unique singing voice, to the extent that it looks like she’s about to dislocate her jaw from the effort. Meanwhile, her north London accent is over-masticated and self-consciously pebbledashed with glottal stops. Unexpectedly, the most effective scenes capture the early sparks of romance with Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell), shown through Winehouse’s eyes as an outlaw charmer, far removed from the shifty smack-weasel of tabloid coverage.