Starring: Derek Jacobi, Daniel Craig
Director: John Maybury
John Maybury’s elliptical yet powerfully disturbing feature debut charts the relationship between Francis Bacon and George Dyer, a young tough who attempted to burgle the gay painter’s flat and ended up becoming his live-in lover instead. Bacon introduces Dyer to his hard-drinking Soho cronies, draws him into his sado-masochistic fantasises and uses him as the subject for a series of paintings, but Dyer – more innocent and vulnerable than he seems – soon starts to exhibit signs of erratic, compulsive behaviour which tests the patience of Britain’s greatest painter.
Not your usual kind of subject matter for a British movie, and not your usual kind of directorial approach either. There’s a wariness, a distance to Maybury’s camera as he circles round the characters. The story unfolds in short, staccato scenes – voyeuristic glimpses. There’s an outwardness to everything. The actors are often framed against dark backgrounds, as though for oil studies. There’s an awareness of skin, the sweaty, shiny surfaces of the human body. And distorting effects are used to remind us of the effort, the sheer struggle, of seeing.
Yet for all its fragmentariness the film paints a vivid and convincing portrait of Bacon and of the calculated selfishness of the artist who lives only for his work. It doesn’t manage to explain quite why the relationship was so disastrous for Dyer, but what it does capture is the irony that a painter who seemed so alive to the psychic traumas of the mid-twentieth century was seemingly so oblivious to the mental disturbance of the person closest to him. It’s also brilliant on Bacon’s favourite stamping ground, a drinking club called The Colony, with its seedy, boozy atmosphere, its bitchiness and its gallery of grotesques.
Daniel Craig gives a self-effacing turn and very much leaves the limelight to Derek Jacobi in a role that’s one of the towering highlights of his career, a performance that captures the sometimes frightening public mask of the painter as well as the nuances of a complex inner life. 8/10
On the whole a very nice HD transfer. All those scenes of pasty skin and grimy walls come across with an almost palpable force, and the crowd scene in the foyer of the boxing club – a rare moment of period prettiness with flowered hats and printed frocks – has lots of depth and detail. The sound is also particularly clear and crisp. 8/10
17-min montage piece about The Colony, rich on atmosphere if somewhat short on info. ~ 20-min interview with the film’s producers which will be of great interest to anyone curious about the inner workings of the British film industry. Among other things, they discuss the film’s origins as an adaptation of a biography of Bacon sponsored by the British Film Board and explain why they weren’t allowed to use any of Bacon’s paintings in the film. ~ Audio commentary with John Maybury and Derek Jacobi, dominated by the director, who offers a stream of fascinating insights. For instance, he reveals, amazingly, that he originally wanted Malcolm McDowell to play Bacon; that it’s Daniel Craig spinning out of focus in the title sequence; and that he used an ashtray on a clamp for the “drunk-o-vision” effects in the Colony scenes. 8/10