Current Issue #488

Film Review:
Acute Misfortune

Prolific actor Thomas M. Wright makes his directorial début with this dark Aussie biopic-of-sorts that somewhat slipped through the commercial cracks, but is now streaming on Stan in all its brooding glory.

An off-putting-but-fittingly-titled study of a period at the end of the life (no spoilers necessary) of Australian artist Adam Cullen (1965-2012), this primarily concentrates on his painfully unobjective relationship with his biographer Erik Jensen, who co-wrote the script with Wright and isn’t afraid to make his proxy look decidedly less than virtuous.

Journalistic wunderkind Jensen (Toby Wallace, who went on to Babyteeth) is sent by The Sydney Morning Herald to interview Cullen (Daniel Henshall), who won the Archibald Prize in 2000 for his portrait of David Wenham and was frequently feared. The 19-year-old Jensen is intimidated by Cullen but nevertheless writes a pointed piece. Cullen then suggests that the kid become his biographer, and soon Erik is staying at his home in the Blue Mountains and, yes it’s true, being accidentally(?) shot in the leg by his subject.

Wallace plays Jensen as withdrawn and slightly agonised, and he’s certainly fine but naturally a little upstaged by the scarily impressive Henshall in the showier role. And yes, Henshall both put on and lost a lot of weight to play Cullen and has transcendent, even terrifying moments, but the character is such a monster that some will surely struggle to care, even when he starts to grow seriously ill.

His Adam is cruel, dangerously unpredictable, nasty to his long-suffering parents (Geneviève Lemon and Max Cullen), misogynist and fairly homophobic as well. Or is it all a front to cover up for his fear, and to feed his insatiable need to be an artist? Yes, that old chestnut, sorry.

Director Wright tries lots of tricks here on what was probably a limited budget, and some of them work powerfully well, including the simple but memorable use of backwards motion to demonstrate the psychological unravelling of both our protagonists – or, perhaps, the feeling that they both have of slipping away. These scenes are also given extra impact by muso Evelyn Ida Morris who, in their first filmic musical score, offers unnervingly thumping beats and choral chants that sometimes sneak out of nowhere.

The need to overpraise Australian movies is strong, and yes, Jensen and Henshall are both formidable, yet this ultimately does leave you a tad uncertain how to feel at the inevitably ugly end. But, well, that’s life. And art too.

Reviewer Rating

Acute Misfortune (MA) is now streaming on Stan

DM Bradley

See Profile

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox