Runtime: 107 minutes
Director: Carol Morley
Writer: Carol Morley
Stars: Monica Dolan, Kelly MacDonald
By Calum Cooper
Carol Morley is one of the most adventurous filmmakers working in Britain today. Although this is only her fourth feature film, her commitment to singular vision and the attributes that define individual people have the convictions of someone who’s made thrice as many pictures. “Typist Artist Pirate King” continues her tradition of exploring the human psyche while simultaneously challenging her audience with her material. The end result is a film that is oddly charming and grows in strength the more you sit with it.
The film is a fictional biopic on Audrey Amiss, an artist whose work was only fully appreciated after she passed away in 2013. She spent years in and out of institutions, owing to a lifetime of mental illness, most notably schizophrenia. Monica Dolan plays Audrey, who becomes convinced that there is a gallery she must attend to finally present her art to the world. Recruiting her put upon care worker Sandra (Kelly MacDonald) to drive her all the way from London to Yorkshire, the two embark on a road trip. While filled with tension, the trip ultimately becomes a reconciliation between Audrey, her fears and her past.
The eccentric title comes from Amiss’s passport in which she wrote those words as her occupation. It is an accurate, if quirky, insight into Amiss’s perception of the world. Due to the semi-reclusive nature of Amiss’s life Morley did extensive research into her life, and it shows on screen. Featuring much of Amiss’s artwork and many scenes of Amiss declaring her intentions and beliefs regarding art and life, albeit aggressively so, Morley has a key understanding of what made Amiss a significant artist. Her conveying of this through earnest sentiment and empathy relating to Amiss’s struggles makes for an engaging character study.
Although there is sympathy and admiration for Amiss, Morley does not paint her as wholly good. Amiss’s condition made her susceptible to confusion and even disorder at the expense of others. It wasn’t her fault, but Morley still showcases the harm this had for others, as Amiss’s resentment for how life has not gone her way enhances the complications of her illness. Sandra often bears the brunt of Amiss’s schizophrenia induced outbursts, and it’s hard not to sympathise with just how much she tolerates. In fact, many early scenes involve so much ranting and raving that one might be forgiven for being unsure how to feel about Amiss at first.
“Morley’s taking of the audience on this colourful journey allows us to understand and ultimately relate to Amiss as the film explores the wounds of the past, the anxiety of unfulfillment and the joys of creativity through the life of an overlooked woman who made compelling art.”
Yet Morley and her team never lose that belief in humanity that they see in Amiss. The more time Sandra spends with Amiss the more her perception of Amiss is challenged and evolves. The same is true of the audience. Through Morley’s idiosyncratic yet delicate script and particular attention to colour palette, Amiss grows from a seemingly spiteful old woman into something deeply affected, and inspired, by trauma and a certain hopelessness of a life that has not been fulfilled. Morley’s first film “Dreams of a Life” (2011) detailed the story of a woman so forgotten by time that it took years for anyone to discover that she had died. Amiss is still alive in “Typist Artist Pirate King” but her fear of going through life undiscovered and overlooked – as her artwork seemingly has – has a similar haunting quality that explains her attitude. Despite the bright, almost childlike colour, to the film, there is an undeniable darkness underpinning it all.
Fragility is a key word to associate with this film’s story and characters, but Morley’s ambitious efforts, from her script to her direction, make “Typist Artist Pirate King” an absorbing feature. The brilliant performances ensure that her vision comes to life. While the film perhaps relies a little too heavily on the dialogue filling the gaps in our understanding of the characters, the actors nonetheless embody the arcs and nuances that make their roles such fascinating people. MacDonald is brilliant as the constantly exasperated Sandra who can’t believe what she’s putting up with half the time. But Dolan’s commitment to the full portrait of Amiss – with all of her faults, hardships and weirdly charming quirks – is titanically admirable and effortlessly engaging.
Two thirds into the film, Amiss draws a picture of Sandra that – while abstract in many ways – seems to capture the inner feelings of Sandra as a person. Morley’s film achieves a similar result. Roger Ebert famously said that cinema is a machine for generating empathy. While the character of Amiss may initially test our patience, Morley has never been straight forward in her execution of ideas – look no further than her hidden gem “The Falling” (2015). Morley’s taking of the audience on this colourful journey allows us to understand and ultimately relate to Amiss as the film explores the wounds of the past, the anxiety of unfulfillment and the joys of creativity through the life of an overlooked woman who made compelling art. “Typist Artist Pirate King” is another adventurous endeavour from one of Britain’s most exciting filmmakers.
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