Runtime: 90 minutes
Director: Thomas M. Wright
Writers: Erik Jensen, Thomas M. Wright
Actors: Daniel Henshall, Toby Wallace, Gillian Jones, Genevieve Lemon, Max Cullen
By Joan Amenn
Artist Adam Cullen (Daniel Henshall) says early in “Acute Misfortune” (2020) that he paints because it’s the only job in the world where “your employer wants you to die.” In other words, his work will increase in value upon his death which he takes as justification for his blatant desire for it to happen. The film documents what transpires when a young reporter attempts to put down in words the life of this anguished, talented Australian version of Jackson Pollack in all his rebellious, self -destructive fury. It is not an easy watch but the riveting performances of the two leads make it an emotional roller coaster of a biography that risks making its subject unlikable, even if he is inspiring.
“Acute Misfortune” is a stunning film that hopefully brings recognition to Wright as also being a gifted artist just getting warmed up for even greater work.”
Young Erik Jensen (Toby Wallace), whose book is the basis for the film, is an up and coming journalist but he also uses his stenographer’s notebook as a shield to hide his discomfort with his sexuality. His notes are all transcribed in shorthand, all the better to remaining anonymous behind his by-line. He is in a relationship fraught with disinterest and disloyalty but his world is about to be rocked by his assignment to interview Cullen. The tables are turned on Erik when Cullen insists on painting his portrait during their first meeting, making him a participant rather than the observer of the story he will be writing. Cullen’s overt masculinity and hints of misogyny suggest he is also struggling with his sexual identity but this is never clearly spelled out beyond the obvious attraction both men have for each other. For Erik, this indeed becomes an “acute misfortune” as he is pulled into the spiraling downward trajectory of Cullen’s life.
As a directing debut, “Acute Misfortune” deserves all the recognition it has been getting. Thomas Wright meticulously arranges his scenes to contrast the beauty of Australia’s countryside where Cullen feels most comfortable to his increasingly dark and claustrophobic home that seems to be decaying at the same time he is. Daniel Henshall’s performance could easily have gone over the top into caricature, but he modulates even his darkest moments with either quiet humor or rueful self-awareness.
It is Wallace’s performance as Jensen that shows us how captivating the artist must have been in person. Erik falls under his spell and stays there despite experiencing shocking examples of cruelty from Cullen. Jensen does not come across as weak but all too understanding of the need for recognition one artist longs for from another artist. He and Cullen shared that until sharing anything became too much of a threat, both physically and emotionally. “Acute Misfortune” is a stunning film that hopefully brings recognition to Wright as also being a gifted artist just getting warmed up for even greater work.