ACUTE MISFORTUNE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Thomas M Wright

Stars: Daniel Henshall, Toby Wallace, Max Cullen, Genevieve Lemon.

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Some reviewers, a couple of whose opinions I respect, have called Acute Misfortune one of the best Australian films of the year, although I found it troubling and disturbing on a couple of levels.

This is a relentlessly bleak, uncompromising and downbeat biopic of controversial Archibald Prize winning artist Adam Cullen, who died in 2012 aged just 46. This is the non-judgemental portrait of a troubled and terribly flawed and self-destructive artist and makes for challenging and difficult viewing at times. Acute Misfortune is not an easy film to watch. It is certainly not a film for everybody.

Cullen lived an isolated life in a dingy house in the Blue Mountains where he hunted and created his confronting works of art. His works were often vilified and dealt with uncomfortable sub jects such as crime, toxic masculinity. His work often had an irreverent bent to it as well. Acute Misfortune is an adaptation of the award-winning candid warts and all biography written by Erik Jensen, a precociously talented young journalist who spent three years with Cullen trying to get a handle on his often abrasive personality. He charted Cullen’s mental and physical decline.

But the film is as much about Jensen and his personality, insecurities and inner demons as it is about Cullen. Jensen himself was a somewhat naïve 19-year old, impressionable and susceptible to Cullen’s charms but also subject to his more violent outbursts. At one point Cullen shoots him, and in another instance shoves him off the back of a speeding motorbike.

Jensen himself has co-written the screenplay with Thomas M Wright, an actor (Top Of The Lake, etc), who makes his feature directorial debut here. Unlike other biopics about a famous artist and their creative process, Wright eschews the usual tropes of the conventional biopic. His approach to the material is more oblique and impressionistic in style, and follows a nonlinear narrative structure, and he maintains a fairly dark and bleak tone throughout. Like the book on which it is based, the film unfolds as a series of vignettes, giving it an episodic and disjointed feel. The film deals with themes of addiction, obsession, fame.

Acute Misfortune is largely a two-hander, and it is the two central performances though that hold the attention. Daniel Henshall brings to the role of Cullen the same intensity, sense of menace, and chilling demeanour that he brought to his role as dangerously charismatic serial killer John Bunting in Snowtown. In fact, he is often wearing the late artist’s clothes in the film, adding authenticity to his characterisation.

A child star who first came to our attention with Lucky Country, Toby Wallace (from Boys In The Trees, the tv miniseries Romper Stomper, etc) continues to move away from his more juvenile roles to explore darker, troubled and more complex characters. Here he brings an air of detachment to his performance as Jensen. He also brings a vulnerability to the role.

The film has been shot in a primarily dark colour palette by Germain McMicking (Partisan, etc,) and Stefan Duscio (Canopy, Jungle, etc), which underscores the bleak nature of the material. They have shot in the boxy 4:3 Academy ratio, which also gives the material a claustrophobic feel.

Acute Misfortune is a polarising film about a polarising figure.

★☆

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