Daniel Henshall, Toby Wallace
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A thought-provoking work executed powerfully…
Acute Misfortune tells the story of the later years of Archibald-Prize winning artist Adam Cullen (Daniel Henshall, Snowtown, The Babadook), as chronicled by reporter Erik Jensen (Toby Wallace).
Cullen’s works have represented Australia all over the world. At 42 years old, he was the subject of a comprehensive career retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2008 – 4 years before his death in 2012.
Jensen was not yet 16 when he first got into journalism, going on to become the youngest news journalist to join the Sydney Morning Herald in two decades in 2007.
Based on his penned account, Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, the film picks up in 2008, when the 19 year-old is invited to interview the divisive Cullen at his house in the Blue Mountains. Off that article, Cullen handpicked the fresh-faced aspirant to write his life story for a book commissioned by publisher Thames and Hudson – a deal, it turned out, never existed, one that was entirely made up by Cullen. In spite of the fact it became clear no manuscript was commissioned, Jensen spent four years on and off writing the book.
Cullen, depicted in the film, is a man who compares himself to Ned Kelly, and idolises David Wenham’s iconic performance of a Western Sydney suburbs hood in the 1998 film The Boys. (One of Cullen’s most famous pieces is a painting of Wenham.)
Cullen sits in his lounge chair, watching Wenham’s thug call himself a God, uttering “Wenho, Wenho, Wenho”, as Wenham grimly tars a cigarette on the car window. (The Boys producer Robert Connolly is heavily involved with Acute Misfortune.)
The comparison is apt. Here is another figure who lives by his own rules and vices.
Jensen is lured into the artist’s vacuum, moulded and exposed to Cullen’s literal and figurative nakedness. There is a scene where the painter arrives home at 1am, standing outside Jensen’s room, nude.
What follows is a strange, intense, dangerous relationship between the two, bordering on obsession; as the bright-eyed correspondent experiences skinned rabbits, drugs, being shot… Jensen is bruised, beaten up, pushed off a horse, continually threatened with his life – yet still, he sticks around Cullen’s house to get the story.
The performances are notable. Daniel Henshall, in particular, gives a lived-in portrayal, completely exhibiting madness and capriciousness.
The compositions of the film are arresting. Figures enter the frame, and dissipate. The photography by cinematographers Stefan Duscio and Germain McMicking ratchets up intensity. Shots of the Blue Mountains, where Cullen resided, vividly enhance the backdrop to the madness. Many scenes capture simple shapes, dots, figures.
Thomas M. Wright, an acclaimed actor (Top Of The Lake, The Bridge, Sweet Country), and co-founder of stage company The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm, makes an impressive feature directing debut with the film. Not a standard, conventional biopic, Wright wisely chooses a poetic approach, interpreting moments and elements rather than taking a traditional route. It is more of a mosaic. The result is all the more fitting.
Written in collaboration by author Jensen and Wright, this is a film that, like The Boys, is not a pretty or beautiful portrait. Much of Adam Cullen’s behaviour is repulsive, and there are scenes of violence. But the way the ugliness is captured is striking, matching Cullen’s art.
A thought-provoking work executed powerfully, Acute Misfortune is an artistic, no holds barred depiction of madness.