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Does Australia celebrate the wrong kind of people, and the wrong kind of art? This question bounced around my mind for days after watching Acute Misfortune – a beautifully made and intensely thoughtful portrait of the life of controversial Archibald-winning painter Adam Cullen, based on the journalist and Saturday Paper editor Erik Jensen’s wild and compelling book of the same name.
There is a scene in which Cullen, played with meditative gloominess by Daniel Henshall, dabs away at a picture of Ned Kelly – another person whose fame vastly eclipsed reasonable consideration of him as a person. Later we listen to Cullen talk trash in the back of a cab, smoking cigarettes while wasted on heroin, calling the Kelly gang “a bunch of junkies and trannies”. The artist blabbers about how he can do whatever he wants with his guns and his drugs and his fame and his notoriety.
The first-time film-maker Thomas M Wright, who directed and co-adapted the script with Jensen, rejects the idea that the greatness of the artist excuses the sins of the person. In a sense Acute Misfortune is a companion piece to Hannah Gadsby’s water cooler Netflix special Nanette, in which the comedian reassesses vaunted artists such as Pablo Picasso, concluding: “The history of western art is just the history of men painting women like they’re vases for their dick flowers.” She rallies against romanticism of mental illness, insisting that it “is not a ticket to genius. It’s a ticket to fuckin’ nowhere.”
That destination of “fuckin’ nowhere” can, as Acute Misfortune reminds us, apply to storied careers synonymous with fortune and acclaim. It is easier to philosophise about how money doesn’t necessarily create happiness than to say the same about success. Yet this message is at the heart of Wright’s film, which takes seriously words printed on the book’s lining that declared it “a story told without judgment”.
It certainly paints a picture of a man for whom success seemed to bring little: no happiness; no peace of mind; no meaningful direction or purpose. As Jensen wrote in his book: “[Cullen’s] career reached exceptional heights, work that was occasionally sublime, but he seemed intent on ending it in wreckage … he had become the broken men of his paintings … a morose kind of self-portraiture.”
Like Jensen, Wright is conflicted by the task of separating the myth from the man, given that the man in this instance not just indulged his own myths but authored them. In the film, when the journalist arrives in the artist’s slummy hovel of a house, Cullen apologises for the mess and explains that his girlfriend just left him (this was a lie he told visiting journalists to elicit their empathy). The artist believed in Charles Bukowski’s quote about how “endurance is more important than truth”, and seemed a living testament to Hunter S Thompson’s attitudes towards “the edge” – that “the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over”.
Acute Misfortune’s structure follows the “journalist getting to know subject” route, but the tone is more Snowtown than Almost Famous. The film marks another one-for-the-ages performance from Henshall, who played John Bunting in the director Justin Kurzel’s chilling film about the “bodies in barrels” murders. Here the actor’s menace points inwards, to a complicated man who tore himself apart. Wright is coy about when and how he shows Cullen’s work (which, like his own clothes, were made available to the film-makers). To dwell on his oeuvre would risk celebrating it, and this by turn would risk embracing the “tortured artist” trope or extolling the virtues of the troubled genius.
Pollock, the director and star Ed Harris’s 2000 biopic about the celebrated expressionist painter, opens with a shot of the artist giving an autograph to a starstruck female fan. Mr Turner, the 2014 film by the writer/director Mike Leigh, begins with the titular character (Timothy Spall) sketching a beautiful tableau in front of him: a sunset dripping with eye-watering colours. Neither is a bad film but both began from a position of reverence for their subjects, meaning the film-makers had to battle uphill to create a picture of them significantly more nuanced than a potted biography in an art gallery brochure.
Not so in Acute Misfortune. This isn’t a celebration of Cullen’s legacy nor a cautionary tale about life on the wrong side of the tracks. Wright understands that sentiment is often better coming from the audience than the film-maker. His drama ebbs and flows with a kind of haunting poeticism. The gently probing camerawork of the cinematographers Germain McMicking and Stefan Duscio contains many images that slowly move into something or slowly move out, and Luca Cappelli’s editing is superb: tight – sharpened into a lithe 90-minute running time – but loose enough to allow the drama and performances space to breathe.
This is an enthralling drama: the best and most interesting Australian biopic since Chopper in 2000. Like the director Andrew Dominik’s great character study, starring Eric Bana as the notorious criminal and shit spinner, Acute Misfortune works on several levels – including a rumination on a famous eccentric that peels away the gloss of legend. It prefers posing questions – like whether this country celebrates the wrong kind of people – to drawing conclusions.
• Acute Misfortune is playing at Melbourne international film festival
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Acute Misfortune first-look review – Adam Cullen biopic is an enthralling, complex triumph | Australian film