Daniel Henshall and Toby Wallace stagger in first-time film director Thomas M Wright’s startling look at the life and death of artist Adam Cullen.
Erik Jensen was a 19-year-old cub reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald when he headed to the Blue Mountains in 2008 to meet the controversy-courting artist Adam Cullen at his spartan Wentworth Falls home.
Jensen was on an assignment to interview the artist for a regular column that illuminated the unusual hobbies of well-known figures; in this instance, the hobby was Cullen’s proclivity for tanning – not the solarium variety, but rather the preservation of animal hides.
“I was fascinated by his eloquence, and the size and shape of the character he was projecting,” Jensen recalls, as the winter winds of St Kilda whistle down the mobile line. “He was a large and forceful and quite inviting personality, initially.”
Stripped skin. It’s hard to imagine a more apt symbol for the turn their complicated relationship took over the next four, and final, years of Cullen’s life, during which he would win the coveted Archibald Prize with a portrait of David Wenham before dying alone, at 46.
Cullen commissioned Jensen to pen his life story (for what turned out to be a fabricated publishing contract). The young journalist agreed, and moved into the artist's spare room. In the tumultuous months that followed, skin was, quite literally, stripped away, as Cullen shot Jensen in the leg, and then later pushed him from a speeding motorbike.
Why the writer didn’t leave is only part of the strange and terrible allure of Acute Misfortune, the feverish feature debut of Top of the Lake star and Black Lung theatre-maker, Thomas M. Wright.
The talk of the Melbourne International Film Festival, the film takes its name from the biography Jensen did, indeed, publish following Cullen’s tragic death. The phrase, repeated in the film, is borrowed from Cullen’s flippant response to the journalist’s enquiry about his stomach scar, “The art world caused this.”
Shot in the Academy ratio with Panavision Primo lenses, Acute Misfortune is as visually arresting as its subject matter is startling. An intensely visceral work layering art, persona and place in dreamlike and occasionally nightmarish fashion, Snowtown star Daniel Henshall is astounding in the role of heroin-addicted Cullen, with Toby Wallace (Romper Stomper) also impressive as Jensen.
“Toby is extraordinary,” director Wright tells SBS Movies. “He’s one of the more prodigious young actors I’ve ever come across. And as for Dan, there was a synchronicity in that role. He brought that baggage with him from playing John Bunting in Snowtown, one of the strongest performances in Australian cinema.”
Wright says the 1.37:1 ratio was selected partly to encompass the idea of “portraiture as theft,” but also so that the framing, with black bands on either side of the screen, elicited, “a very subtle implication of claustrophobia.” That’s exacerbated by an unnervingly Kubrick-like favouring of one-point perspective, “pointing us in this inevitable direction,” Wright offers.
Though the doomed artist narrative can be riddled with cliché, Wright’s elegiac film, embracing vaulting cinematic ambition paired with deeply intimate performances, redraws expectation.
“We’re not going for that grainy, 16mm feel,” Wright says. “I didn’t want the film to be dominated by a 'masculine' tone that often defines these sort of Australian films. The sort of darkness where they hold you under water the whole time and don’t let you up, and the guitars are grinding.”
The director's theatrical background helped him weave the meticulously researched intricacies of Cullen and Jensen’s relationship into a 90-minute movie thrumming with ambiguity.
“It’s too easy to sit in judgement of Adam or Erik, and there were a lot of people within the art community who were very angry at that book,” Wright notes. “I certainly feel that this argument is not black and white, it is full of a kaleidoscope of colours.”
Jensen, who adapted the film alongside Wright, wrote the book in a grieving flurry shortly after Cullen’s death, drawing on a crate of shorthand-scribbled notebooks. It allowed him necessary closure.
“Part of what I think is interesting about me and that book and the circumstances of its writing is that the research tracked my shift from naiveté to adulthood, and Adam lived on this precipice between mischief and childhood, and the malevolence of adulthood. A lot of his work was made on that precipice.”
The rawness of his 19-year-old self enabled him to access some of Cullen’s essential truths, he believes. “I don’t think I would now accept what I accepted then, but it is about being able to inhabit commonality with your subject. The book and this film is about the way in which you can hold yourself close to another person and will yourself to understand them.”
Wright has a similar take. “The traditional form of a coming of age story has a person who goes from nothing to knowing something, and I was more interested in inverting that, so it was a film about a person who thought they knew everything coming to learn that they probably didn’t.”
And was it strange for Jensen to see his young self as portrayed by Wallace? “I walked onto a set standing in for the newsroom at the Sydney Morning Herald, the offices of a cinema in the Blue Mountains, and it felt uncanny in a way that was not disconcerting, but actually deeply comforting,” he says. “It was as if I were able to step back into a closed part of my life and, when I saw Toby across the other side of the room, a man who looks precisely nothing like me, I saw this strange familiarity in his mannerisms and in his presence.”
Henshall is much closer in appearance to Cullen, Jensen notes. “He looks so much like Adam that I know his father found it quite affecting to meet him. I know Dan as a friend, and so I found it quite easy to distinguish him from the part, but I know a lot of Adam’s friends were going through some sort of process of communication with Adam. By being with Dan, it was a chance to say goodbye again, and I think that speaks to Dan’s openness and humanity as an actor.”
Acute Misfortune screens at MIFF this weekend.
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