Daniel Henshall, Toby Wallace, Max Cullen, Gillian Jones
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…a powerful, richly crafted, and undeniably important work of art…
Famed for his now iconic Archibald Prize-winning portrait of actor, David Wenham, and notorious for his combat-shock brand of art and occasional associations with criminal figures (he illustrated Chopper Read’s “children’s book”, Hooky The Cripple), the late Adam Cullen scratched out a well-deserved position as one of Australia’s most polarising and unusual artists. It’s wholly appropriate then that a film about his life and death should be so profoundly strange and singularly unsettling. Making his directorial debut, hard-working character actor Thomas M. Wright (Sweet Country, The Bridge, Top Of The Lake) proves a prodigious talent, crafting stunningly bleak visuals and working wonders with an impressive cast.
No standard biopic, Acute Misfortune is just as much about Adam Cullen’s biographer, Erik Jensen, as it is about the artist. Just nineteen at the time, Jensen was tapped by Cullen himself to write his biography. Cullen hooked Jensen by falsely telling the young writer that the book had been commissioned by a major publishing company, leading to a long, drawn out interview process over a number of years that blurred the lines between truth and fiction, and subject and author. Built on a booze-soaked sham, the pair’s relationship was an aggressive and unsteady one, but Jensen ultimately got to the heart of the matter when it came to the myth-making Cullen, whose outer shell of toughness protected a deep, deep well of sadness, pain, and mental illness.
Wright captures the pair’s dangerous relationship brilliantly, as do his actors. Toby Wallace (the Romper Stomper mini-series) does a fine job as Erik Jensen, getting at the neuroses that lurk beneath the young writer’s surface cockiness. It’s certainly the more thankless of the two roles, but Wallace gives it everything he’s got. The real towering work here, of course, is done by Daniel Henshall (Snowtown), whose performance as Adam Cullen is nothing short of staggering. Bouncing from bullying jerk to arrogant hipster artist to scared little boy with deft assurance, it’s the kind of big, brave, full-bodied turn that wins major awards. Henshall gets to the real flesh and bone of Cullen, and it’s a bruising, dark-hued joy to witness.
Just like Adam Cullen’s art, Acute Misfortune plays out like a cinematic brand of aggravated assault, shocking the senses, puncturing moral expectations, and stirring the emotions with a wailing flurry of narrative kicks and punches. It’s a powerful, richly crafted, and undeniably important work of art from a major talent to watch.