Synopsis: In 1973, a young gallery assistant goes on a wild adventure behind the scenes as he helps the aging genius Salvador Dali prepare for a big show in New York.
Stars: Ben Kingsley, Barbara Sukowa, Christopher Briney, Rupert Graves, Alexander Beyer, Andreja Pejić, Suki Waterhouse, Ezra Miller
Director: Mary Harron
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: It’s taken a while, but I’m finally beginning to see the inherent problems with the standard approach in tackling the biopic genre. Until now, I’ve been mostly forgiving in films that have read like encyclopedic breakdowns of a life because often that’s the most direct way of conveying that information to the broadest net of viewers. Color any further outside those lines, and then the filmmakers start veering into the taking of liberties that blur factual boundaries. However, sometimes a rote retelling can be so dry that you wonder if reading the Wikipedia biography might have been more worth your time.
That’s a bit of an overly harsh swipe at director Mary Harron’s Dalíland, a 97-minute reflection on the life of surrealist painter Salvador Dalí told from the perspective of, what else?, an outsider that enters the famous artist’s orbit for a brief shining moment only to emerge on the other side bruised but wiser for the experience. Yet it remains an accurate observation of the film that has been made about the visual artist. Its central thesis, stated early on, is “Did you know Dalí was an eccentric?” and it rather bullishly sticks with that idea without bothering to go much deeper.
Screenwriter John Walsh centers the film around Dalí’s later years when he was creatively and financially declining, only briefly looking back at his younger days when he met his wife, Gala. The lack of background is due to Dalíland being narrated by James Linton (Christopher Briney), an art-gallery assistant that first comes to know Salvador and Gala in New York circa 1973. The young man (an amalgam of several similar assistants that served the same function for the couple) quickly becomes swept up in the Dalí’s extravagant lifestyle of decadence. Yet it comes with a hefty price tag that his conscience eventually can’t continue to pay.
In his advanced years, the Spanish painter is played by English Oscar-winner Sir Ben Kingsley (Exodus: Gods and Kings), and the younger Dalí is brought to life by Ezra Miller (also represented in theaters now with The Flash). While Kingsley remains one of our most treasured elder statesmen in the acting profession, he’s playing outside his nationality, and it’s sometimes an awkward fit. Why Harron didn’t go for an actual Spaniard for the role is a head-scratcher; there are enough options out there that would have made the film feel less of a curio showcase for Kingsley and, to a lesser extent, Miller.
The same could be said for what Barbara Sukowa (Air) is turning in as Gala Dalí. The German actress positively nails the chilly Russian’s ability to turn her affection on and off, and she’s afforded the best (read: the most believable) arc of the film as she balances specific arrangements within her marriage and has to defend them to an outsider’s judgment. Gala’s public affair and lengthy romance with Jeff Fenholt, the star of Broadway’s Jesus Christ Superstar, is featured prominently. Compared to the pivotal role she plays for her husband, the complexities of that relationship make for the most compelling moments in the movie. Instead, I’d have preferred the film to be about her than Dalí himself and the Linton amalgam.
While the hour and a half we spend with these characters are never dull, it’s never more than surface-level entertainment, and that’s not what we should expect from a film about the most famous surrealist painter in history. It’s incredibly frustrating because the production looks so good, with the cinematography from Marcel Zyskind and the production design by Isona Rigau (Mary Queen of Scots) being a highlight, capturing the feel of the era without resorting to gaudy excess. Harron (American Psycho) is too good of a director to spend too much time with films like Dalíland, and I hope she’s booked a one-way ticket out.