Director: John Maybury
Starring: Derek Jacobi, Daniel Craig, Tilda Swinton
I chose to watch this movie because I like Daniel Craig. The first time I saw him was in Road to Perdition (2002). Anyone with half an eye could immediately see that this guy had talent, this strangely handsome man with bright eyes and intense depth. Since then, Americans have seen Craig in so many films: Layer Cake, The Jacket, Munich, Flashbacks of a Fool, Defiance, Cowboys & Aliens, and of course the James Bond series of films and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movies. But before all that he was a presence on British television: in shows, miniseries, and made-for-TV movies. In the late 90s he began real film work, including Obsession, Elizabeth, and Love is the Devil, subtitled “Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon.” I was excited to see Craig in an early role, although he was already 30 at the time, and to see what it was that caught the attention of filmmakers and, ultimately, audiences.
Francis Bacon is one of Britain’s most famous painters, perhaps the most influential modern painter to ever come from the Kingdom, a man whose only competition for the title of greatest ever is J.M.W. Turner. Bacon painted abstract figures, focusing on the human form but delivering it to audiences in an unconventional manner. His entire life was unconventional, from his parties to his personality, his lovers to his friends. Bacon was a homosexual, making no attempt to hide that fact in a time when it was not widely accepted. Bacon lived from 1909 to 1992, dying at the age of 82 in Madrid, Spain. Born in Ireland and celebrated the world over, Bacon left a lasting impression on the art world, becoming the leading painter of the human condition, the rawness of our lives, and the base emotions that dictate our world.
Although Bacon had many affairs, his most public was with a man named George Dyer. The story of this film begins with Dyer breaking into Bacon’s home and the two immediately beginning a sexual relationship, one that would turn into much more over the following years. Bacon would slowly turn Dyer into a more civilized man; taking him to parties, introducing him to the greatest minds of the time, buying him clothes, giving him money. But Dyer had more problems than a little pampering could solve. Drugs, alcohol, suicide attempts, nightmares; George Dyer was not a well man, but was a constant at Bacon’s side throughout the most prominent years of the artist’s life. Over the course of the next seven years, the pair were together all over the world, including Paris, where they would be tragically and permanently separated.
As far as Daniel Craig goes, it was educational to see him earlier than I ever had, to go back to the beginning of his career and to see how early his talent was on display. Because of course it was, a talent like that can’t be hidden. He is an emotionally tumultuous actor, bringing so many aspects to each character, holding so much just beneath the surface until you think it might just burst out. Craig acts with his eyes very often, quietly telling us a great deal, reigning himself in with a control that’s very uncommon. And this was a perfect character to exhibit that talent, as George was a wildly emotional man, or at least that’s how he was seen to be, in life and in this film. Craig was able to bring him to life without taking him over the top; a feat that could not have been easy, especially in a film that was so sensationalistic and wide open.
This was a movie that screamed art, that took every scene to a place that could only exist in the imagination of the director. Too call is sensationalistic is actually an understatement, as every element was crafted to make audiences feel it. The grit, the alcohol, the paint, the bars, the sweat; you could hear, smell, and feel everything that was happening in the film to a degree that was almost uncomfortable. And although you have to give the director and the actors credit for bringing such a raw story to life, it became off-putting to me to be pushed by every shot, to have to experience every emotion, to be so immersed in the terrible darkness that was so often the mood. Basically, there was no levity, no release from the pressure, no balance to the film. It was at all times dark, foreboding, steeped in pain, relentlessly sad, and without quarter. A true story of genius and the price of such talent, but not one that was easy to watch.
Video – With an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 1080p HD Widescreen, the video quality of the Blu-ray disc ought to be better than it actually is. I guess you have to take into the account the year the film was originally shot, 1998, and the quality of the process used at that time. The transfer to a much higher quality medium did not enhance the picture enough to be impressive. The film is still lacking in color, clarity, and brilliantly crisp visuals, though again, much of that is due to the original format.
Audio – The Blu-ray audio was done in Dolby Digital 2.0 DTS HD MA. English SDH is available for the feature, as well as for the commentary, but there are no other language options. The sound quality is quite good, brought over cleanly from the original version. Sound plays an integral part in the film, as the story leans heavily on sensationalism and auditory cues.
Extras – There are only a few extras on the disc. The film can be watched accompanied by a commentary track with director John Maybury and actor Derek Jacobi. There are also five trailers to view: Love is the Devil, You and the Night, Stranger by the Lake, Post Tenebras Lux, and Mysterious Skin.
Skip It. I can’t recommend this movie to any but the most ardent fans of Francis Bacon or to those who strongly enjoy minimalist/sensationalist films. It’s an interesting topic, the acting is strong, and it’s nice to peek into the early career of Daniel Craig. But you still have to sit through the film, and for me that was most difficult part. It’s a drudging, depressing, desperate attempt to convey this plot, perhaps showcasing how these famous lives were actually lived, but not making for a very entertaining experience. I can’t see the majority of audiences enjoying themselves during this film; I know I didn’t, despite some obvious talent. The video is only OK, the audio quality is high, and there a handful of extras on the disc. Overall, one you can miss.
☆ ☆ – Content
☆ ☆ ☆ – Video
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ – Audio
☆ ☆ ☆ – Extras
☆ ☆ – Replay