Australia, 2018, 90 minutes, Colour.
Daniel Henshall, Toby Wallace, Gillian Jones, Genevieve Lemmon, Max Cullen.
Directed by Thomas M.Wright.
Acute Misfortune is certainly an arresting title for a book and film.
The film was co-written by Erik Jensen with the director, based on his biography of artist Adam Cullen. Which means that it presents the portrait of an artist as an erratic middle-aged man as well as something of a sketch of the writer as a young journalist, uncertain, probing, eventually marshalling his material into an award-winning book.
Perhaps the main impact of the film is that of the performance of Daniel Henshall as artist, Adam Cullen. Some years ago, Daniel Henshall won awards for an extraordinarily chilling performance, a smiling serial killer, John Bunting, the perpetrator of the murders in Snowtown, South Australia – Snowtown being the title of the film. Here he offers another chilling performance, sometimes more genial, sometimes more threatening, often much more erratic. Henschel can certainly do extraordinary performances portraying strange characters.
The journalist, Erik Jensen, is played by Toby Wallace who made an impact as a child actor in Lucky Country Return to Nim’s Island and as the young Michael Hutchence in Never Tear Us Apart. Here he is uncertain, ambitious to be a journalist, commissioned to write the story of Adam Cullen, tentative, taking notes, puzzled by Cullen’s behaviour, Cullen often dominating him. There are meetings over the years, sometimes with large gaps, Erik with lots of notes but unable to put them together into a coherent whole.
Because Cullen is so dominating, not only of Erik but of the audience, we are continually fascinated as, at times, we are repelled. He lives out in the bush, a rough kind of life, macho attitudes (with a touch of Wake in Fright), hunting, skinning animals, strange friends, trying to educate Erik.
Erik himself leads something of an isolated life, friends with people in the newspaper world, especially Ruth Mar his mentor (Gillian Jones), visiting clubs, family reunions and parties, an encounter with Cullen’s parents (veteran actors Genevieve Lemmon and Max Cullen).
Audiences who are familiar with Cullen and his work, his winning the Archibald prize in 2000 with his portrait of actor, David Wenham, and glimpses of him watching Wenham’s rather terrifying performance in the film, The Boys, glimpses of his other paintings, will be more at home in this story and appreciate the cinema portrait. Audiences not familiar will certainly learn about the artist but, may well be bewildered at the beginning of the film, puzzled about Cullen, wondering where the story is leading, trying to identify with Erik Jensen and his quest for Cullen’s biography.
The film has been very well received critically, winning The Ages Critics award at the Melbourne Film Festival. The film was cowritten and directed by the actor, Thomas M.Wright.
1. The portrait of Adam Cullen? The portrait of Erik Jensen? Erik Jensen’s book, his role in the adaptation?
2. The New South Wales settings, the Bush, homes, the contrast with the city, newspaper offices, family homes…? The musical score?
3. The title, the reference during the film? Adam Cullen’s experiences?
4. Erik Jensen, young, ambitious, approaching the newspapers, wanting to be a journalist? The role of editors, Ruth Marr? Assignments? The interviews with Cullen? His approach, the alleged collaboration with Thames and Hudson? The later denials? Cullen’s hopes for the biography?
5. Cullen, his character, erratic, the portrait of his parents? His life in the bush, his experience, macho activities, hunting, skinning animals, the associates, the weapons and rifles? His painting, skills? The link with David Wenham? Watching sequences from The Boys? Painting his portrait, winning the Archibald prize? The other portraits, the other paintings? His preoccupations?
6. Cullen, his appearance, hair, weight? Way of life? The contrast with Erik, young?
7. The effect on Erik of his meetings with Cullen, the conversations, Erik young and unsure, taking notes, the interviews? Cullen and his dominance? Provocative on Erik, Erik and sexuality? Erik and his visits to the clubs? Time passing, the erratic meetings over the years, wanting to get his material in order? Ruth and her advice? His continually returning to Cullen? Cullen, illness, his death?
8. The family party, Erik and his presence, his meeting with Cullen’s parents? Ruth, her speech, encouragement?
9. The visit to Thames and Hudson, the disavowal of the book? His eventually getting material in order, publishing, prize-winning?
10. The film as an interpreting of the life and work of an artist and his acute misfortunes?