Review: ‘The Northman,’ starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk and Willem Dafoe

April 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga in “The Northman” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features)

“The Northman”

Directed by Robert Eggers

Culture Representation: Taking place in Northern and Eastern Europe, from the years 894 to approximately 919, the fantasy action film “The Northman” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: In this Viking version of “Hamlet,” an exiled prince seeks to avenge the murder of his father, who was killed by the father’s brother.

Culture Audience: “The Northman” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s all-star cast, filmmaker Robert Eggers and Viking stories that are gory but realistically violent.

Oscar Novak, Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman in “The Northman” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features)

Brutally violent but artistically stunning, “The Northman” brings harsh realism and dreamy mythology to this Viking story that inspired William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” It cannot be said enough times as a warning: “The Northman” is not for viewers who are easily offended by on-screen depictions of bloody gore and sadistic violence. There are scenes in this movie that can best be described as downright filthy—and not just because these scenes have people covered in dirt, blood and other grime. There’s a filth of the mind that plagues many of the characters in “The Northman,” where murder, rape, torture and other assaults are a way of life to conquer and subjugate others.

American filmmaker Robert Eggers has made a career out of exploring the dark side of humanity in the movies that he writes and directs. His feature films—beginning with 2015’s “The Witch” and 2019’s “The Lighthouse”—have a rare combination of taking place in an otherworldly atmosphere while depicting people and events as if they are historically accurate. “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” are defined by elements of horror, while “The Northman” (Eggers’ third feature film, which he co-wrote with Sjón) can be defined by elements of tragedy. “The Northman” is also a movie about Vikings, vengeance and violence.

Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” play was itself based on the medieval Scandinavian legend of Amleth, the story of a prince who vows to get deadly revenge for the murder of his father, who was betrayed and killed by the father’s brother. “The Northman” weaves into the story aspects of Scandinavian folklore, the occult and the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. The end result is an immersive cinematic experience that is both menacing and magical.

“The Northman” begins in the year 894, on the fictitious Scottish island kingdom of Hrafnsey, which is close to Orkney Island and Shetland Island. Hrafnsey is ruled by King Aurvandil War-Raven (played by Ethan Hawke), a confident leader who has just returned to the land after about three months away from home. King Aurvandil has a happy family life with his wife Queen Gudrún (played by Nicole Kidman) and their son Amleth (played by Oscar Novak), who’s about 10 or 11 years old when the story begins.

“The Lighthouse” co-star Willem Dafoe has a small role in “The Northman” as a court jester named Heimir the Fool. King Aurvandil is amused by Heimir’s talents, while the king’s jealous younger brother Fjölnir (played by Claes Bang) is dismissive and condescending to Heimir. The scene with the brothers’ two very different reactions to Heimir are meant to show their contrasting personalities and how they interact with people.

King Aurvandil is fixated on the idea that Amleth should be ready to lead Hrafnsey, because the king has a premonition that he will die soon. Aurvandil does not know when he will die, but he is certain of how he will die: “I must die by the sword. I will die in honor,” he says. Gudrún doesn’t like to hear Aurvandil talk this way, and she insists that Amleth is too young to learn about royal adult responsibilities. Nevertheless, Aurvandil and Amleth do a male-bonding ritual around a campfire together, where a shaman leads the father and son to enact various wolf mannerisms while proving that they’re still human.

Although the king is beloved by many of his subjects, there is a cabal of people waiting to betray him. Leading this traitorous group is Fjölnir, who is cruel, power-mad and ruthless. One day, when King Aurvandil and Amleth are spending some father-son time in a forest, Fjölnir and about a dozen of his cronies ambush the king and viciously murder him, while Amleth witnesses everything.

Amleth manages to hide and escape, but not before using a knife to cut off the nose of a brute named Finnr (played by Eldar Skar), who later lies to everyone by saying that he killed Amleth. For the rest of the movie, Finnr is known as Finnr the Nose-Stub. Amleth runs back home, only to find out that Fjölnir and his gang are plundering the land, invading homes, and letting everyone know that the king is dead and Fjölnir is now in charge. One of the last things that a terrified Amleth sees before he runs away from Hrafnsey is his mother being kidnapped by Fjölnir’s cronies.

The movie then fast-forwards about 20 years later. Amleth (played by Alexander Skarsgård) is now a strapping, angry man, who has joined a group of marauding killers hired to help conquer villages in Eastern Europe. Those who are not killed in these villages are held captive as slaves. “The Northman” has several of these invasion scenes that are not for the faint of heart. Amleth has become extremely jaded and callous in all the violence and murders he commits as a berserker warrior.

However, Amleth soon has a vision of a mystic named Seeress (played by Björk), who reminds Amleth that his immediate purpose in life is to avenge his father’s death. This sets Amleth on a path to disguise himself as a slave and go on a slave ship heading to Iceland. It’s on this ship that he meets Olga of the Birch Forest (played by Anya Taylor-Joy, the breakout star of “The Witch”), an enslaved Slavic devotee of the mystic arts. In other words, Olga is a witch. Amleth and Olga have a mutual attraction to each other that goes exactly where you think it’s going to go.

Amleth is going to Iceland, because it’s where Fjölnir has now settled with Amleth’s mother Gudrún, who is now Fjölnir’s wife. Fjölnir and Gudrún have two sons together: brash young adult Thórir the Proud (played by Gustav Lindh) and obedient pre-teen Gunnar (played by Elliot Rose), who have been brought up in a life of royal privilege. For all of his flaws and evil deeds, Fjölnir loves his sons immensely and will do anything to protect them. Considering how Gudrún ended up with Fjölnir, she is treated just like a trophy wife.

“The Northman” often has simplistic and cliché dialogue, but the cast members’ performances are mostly convincing. Skarsgård and Bang have a great deal of physicality in their roles as Amleth and Fjölnir, which play out in the expected “protagonist versus antagonist” ways. What they both bring to these characters is an added level of emotional depth that becomes more compelling when this nephew and uncle, who are sworn enemies, actually have something in common: their love of family as their biggest emotional vulnerability.

Kidman struggles with sticking to the same accent (sometimes she sounds Scottish, Nordic, Icelandic or various combinations of all three), but her overall performance as Gudrún is riveting, because Gudrún is the most complicated character in the story. Taylor-Joy is perfectly cast as the cunning and (literally) bewitching Olga. The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their roles.

Aside from the disturbing violence, “The Northman” will leave an impact on viewers because of how it creates a world caught in between medieval truths and timeless mythology. There are haunting and compelling scenes involving pagan rituals, ascending into heavenly spaces, and transforming someone’s interior body into some kind of mystical realm, with entrails snaking around like winding tree branches. “The Northman” also has more than a few nods to psychedelia, including Olga’s psychedelic mushrooms that are used as a weapon in this family feud.

“The Northman” greatly benefits from the almost-hypnotic cinematography of Jarin Blaschke, a longtime collaborator of Eggers. Whether or not people enjoy Eggers’ movies (which sometimes drag with slow pacing), there’s no denying that these films have top-notch cinematography. Viewers who can withstand the relentless onslaught of violence in “The Northman” can also appreciate that even amid the murder and mayhem, there are still glimmers of hope for humanity.

Focus Features will release “The Northman” in U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022.

Review: ‘The Affair’ (2021), starring Carice van Houten, Hanna Alström, Claes Bang, Karel Roden and Roland Møller

March 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Hanna Alström and Carice van Houten in “The Affair” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Affair”

Directed by Julius Sevcík 

Culture Representation: Taking place in Czechoslovakia and Germany from the 1930s to 1960s, the dramatic film “The Affair” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two women (one wealthy, the other middle-class) in Czechoslovakia fall in love with each other and hide this secret from almost everyone they know (including their husbands), and their relationship is tested when one of the women moves to Germany.

Culture Audience: “The Affair” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in slow-moving European arthouse dramas where the cinematography and production design are better than the story.

Clockwise, from left to right: Hanna Alström, Carice van Houten, Claes Bang and Karel Roden in “The Affair” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The dramatic film “The Affair” is truly a case of style over substance. The movie is gorgeous to look at, with stunning architecture and dreamy cinematography, but when it comes to the overall pacing and story structure, “The Affair” comes up very short. Directed by Julius Sevcík, “The Affair” is supposed to be about a longtime secret romance between two women, but there’s no convincing passion between any of the characters in this movie, whose story spans about 30 years.

“The Affair” is based on Simon Mawer’s 2009 novel “The Glass Room,” which was the original title of the movie. Mawer adapted the book into the movie’s screenplay, which is a dull and dreary slog that is further impeded by Sevcík’s haphazard direction. Many of the actors speak in awkward cadences, with too many uncomfortable pauses in the dialogue. There is very little chemistry between the actors, so that’s already a setback for a movie that’s supposed to be about love and romance.

“The Affair,” which takes place from the 1930s to 1960s, is set primarily in Brno, Czechoslovakia, but some of the story also takes place in Germany. In the beginning of the movie, it’s the 1930s, and wealthy newlyweds Liesel (played by Hanna Alström) and Viktor (played by Claes Bang) meet with famed architect Von Abt (played by Karel Roden) about commissioning him to build their dream home. The meeting takes place in Von’s own ornate and formal house.

Von asks the couple if they would like a house designed like his own home. Liesel politely but firmly says no. She says she wants her and Viktor’s house to have “simplicity, clarity, light.” And that’s what they get: It’s a modern minimalist house with many walls made of glass.

Liesel is the type of woman who is attractive to many people, but she is fairly modest and doesn’t like to call too much attention to herself. She could be considered a “trophy wife.” Von is one of the people who is attracted to her, but she has rebuffed his advances.

Von made a pass at Liesel one night, before he built Liesel and Viktor’s house. Von showed her his architecture sketches to a pregnant Liesel, who expressed her excited approval of the sketches. She then gave him a ride home in her car.

Before Von got out of the car, he leered at her and asked her if she would like go inside the house with him. He made it obvious that what he wanted was not an innocent chat with a cup of tea. Liesel turned him down nicely and he got the message that she was not interested in having an affair with him.

Liesel and Viktor (who is a businessman) have settled into their marriage and are anticipating the arrival of their first child. They live near another married couple named Hana (played by Carice van Houten) and Oskar (played by Martin Hoffmann), who are middle-class. While Liesel is introverted and likes to play it safe, Hana is more of an extrovert and is more likely to take chances.

Liesel and Hana have grown close, although the movie never really shows how this friendship has developed. By the time Hana is shown in the movie, she’s already expressing that she has romantic feelings for Liesel. Hana looks at Liesel lovingly. And when they’re alone together, Hana starts rubbing Liesel’s pregnant belly and starts to put one of her hands underneath Liesel’s clothes, but Liesel stops Hana before anything sexual can happen.

These types of encounters happen a few more times, where Hana makes the first move (such as trying to give Liesel a romantic kiss), but Liesel stops her. Liesel doesn’t express enough about what she’s feeling to say if what bothers her more is the thought of cheating on her husband or having a same-sex romance or if it’s equally both. Hana doesn’t press the issue, but Liesel makes it clear her feelings for Hana are more than friendship, because they kiss each other’s hands in a romantic way.

There are many ways to express repressed passion, but unfortunately Alström and von Houten are not convincing as two people who are longing to be lovers but can’t because of their circumstances. When Hana caresses Liesel’s pregnant belly, Hana looks more like she’s giving an obstetrician exam than someone who is in love. Liesel seems to be in love with her husband Viktor in the beginning of their marriage, but Alström and Bang aren’t able to portray much of a romantic spark between Liesel and Viktor.

Liesel gives birth to a girl named Otilie (played by Anouk Christiansen), and then two years later gives birth to a boy named Martin (played by Evan Cregan). Viktor and Liesel have a live-in nanny named Kata (played by Alexandra Borbély), who is a refugee single mother of a daughter named Marika (played by Tabitha Campbell). The movie doesn’t do a very good job of introducing these characters.

One minute, Liesel is a first-time mother. And then in a subsequent scene, three children are playing together with Kata in Liesel and Viktor’s spacious backyard. Viewers won’t know who the other two children are until it’s mentioned later in the story. The children are Martin at age 4, Otilie at age 6 and Marika at age 8.

Meanwhile, Hana and Oskar have been unable to have children together. Hana tells Liesel that she’s happy for Liesel to be able to have children. However, it’s fairly obvious that Hana is envious, but she doesn’t want to say it out loud. The movie is vague about the nature of Hana and Oskar’s relationship, since they aren’t shown together very much.

For example, in one scene, when Liesel was pregnant with Otilie, Hana is having dinner over at Liesel and Viktor’s house. Hana mentions to Liesel that Von has asked her out to dinner. Hana asks Liesel, “Do you mind?” The implication is that Liesel told Hana about Von making a pass at her.

Liesel says she doesn’t mind if Hana goes to dinner with Von. The implication is that Hana knows exactly what Von’s intentions are. And it’s not to talk about architecture. But in this scene, there’s no mention of why married Hana is going out on a potentially sexual date. Is she sneaking around on Oskar, or do they have an open relationship? It’s never explained.

One thing that’s clear though is that Hana spends more time with Liesel than she does with Oskar. From the outside, it looks like Hana is the one in the unhappy marriage, while Liesel’s marriage is the stable one. But something happens that rocks Liesel’s world and she can’t look at her own life in the same way again.

It’s enough to say that things take a drastic turn in Liesel and Viktor’s marriage. They stay together, but they move to Germany. And it’s heartbreaking for Liesel and Hana, who continue to write to each other and express their love for one another. As time goes on, they completely fall out of love with their husbands but don’t get divorced because of the stigma.

While all this is happening, Nazi Germany has been invading various countries throughout Europe. Liesel and Hana, who are not Jewish, are worried because their husbands are Jews. As a wealthy man, Viktor has the resources to hide his Jewish identity while he lives in Germany.

Oskar is more vulnerable, since he’s well-known in the neighborhood for being a Jew. There are signs that he is being marginalized and targeted, such as Nazi soldiers showing up to interrogate him. Oskar and Hana’s bank accounts also become frozen. It’s part of Nazi discrimination that the Nazis call “Aryanization.”

Hana grew to love the dream house where Liesel and Viktor used to live in Czechoslovakia. It not only reminds her of Liesel, but Hana also thinks the house is a work of art. After Liesel and Viktor moved to Germany, the house went into somewhat of a state of disrepair. However, Hana keeps going back to the house to visit when she can.

The house then became a school for architecture students. And then, an airplane designer named Stahl (played by Roland Møller) moves into the house. Hana and Stahl meet and it isn’t long before they become lovers. Stahl is a widower, and he tells Hana when they become closer that his wife committed suicide after their baby died while still in the womb.

Meanwhile, Hana and Liesel continue to write love letters to each other. Liesel confesses in one of the letters that when she and Viktor have sex, she thinks of Hana. It’s an indication that if Hana and Liesel ever see each other in person again, Liesel might not stop anything sexual that could happen between them.

“The Affair” goes about telling the story in a jumbled fashion. There are some scenes that are completely useless. And then there are other parts of the story that need to be explained by scenes that aren’t in the movie. The movie’s pacing really drags near the middle of the film. And the romance that’s supposed to be the main storyline is very bland.

And worst of all, there’s a storyline involving Viktor that is a big turning point affecting all the main characters, but then this storyline fades away without being fully resolved. Perhaps with more compelling acting, a more interesting screenplay and better choices in editing, “The Affair” wouldn’t be so monotonous. As it stands, it’s the kind of movie that people can watch and probably forget about a few days later, if they can get through the whole movie without falling asleep.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Affair” on digital and VOD on March 5, 2021. The movie was released in the Czech Republic in 2019.

Review: ‘The Last Vermeer,’ starring Guy Pearce and Claes Bang

November 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Guy Pearce in “The Last Vermeer” (Photo by Jack English/TriStar Pictures)

“The Last Vermeer”

Directed by Dan Friedkin

Some language in Dutch with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Netherlands from 1945 to 1947, and based on true events, the dramatic film “The Last Vermeer” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A Dutch military captain is tasked with hunting down people who stole or illegally sold high-priced art to Nazis, and he unexpectedly believes in the innocence of one wealthy suspect.

Culture Audience: “The Last Vermeer” will appeal primarily to people who like traditionally made dramas that are set in Europe in the 1940s and that explore issues of war crimes, social classes and art.

Roland Møller, Guy Pearce and Claes Bang in “The Last Vermeer” (Photo by Jack English/TriStar Pictures)

The dramatic film “The Last Vermeer,” which is inspired by a true story, is set in post-World War II Holland during the years 1945 to 1947, but the structure of the movie is very much like an episode of the crime procedural TV series “Law & Order.” The first half of the movie is about the hunt for suspects and narrowing it down to the person who gets arrested, while the second half is about the legal procedure that culminates with the accused on trial. It’s not a movie that’s groundbreaking, but it’s elevated by the engaging performances of Guy Pearce and Claes Bang, as two men at the center of an art mystery who start out as enemies and end up becoming unexpected allies.

Directed by Dan Friedkin, “The Last Vermeer” is like comfort food to people who relish a retro movie that pays homage to the era in which it takes place. It’s set in a mid-20th century Holland that is still scarred and recovering from World War II, yet proudly clinging to its historical legacy as one of Europe’s most important cultural centers. Much like it is now, the Netherlands is viewed as a country willing to try progressive things while steeped in traditions that go back centuries.

James McGee, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby wrote the screenplay for “The Last Vermeer,” which is an adaptation of Jonathan Lopez’s 2008 biography “The Man Who Made Vermeeers,” about the life of Han van Meegeren. “The Last Vermeer” makes van Meegeren (played by Pearce) an adversary-turned-ally of the movie’s protagonist Captain Joseph Piller (played by Bang), who is given the responsibility of investigating and tracking down people who were responsible for stealing valuable art and/or selling them to Nazis. Joseph was a lieutenant who fought in the war, and he has a very clear sense of right and wrong, but he’s not above bending the rules if it means getting to the truth.

“The Last Vermeer” is the second movie released in 2020 in which Bang portrays someone at the center of a crime thriller involving fine art. He also starred in “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” which is a fictional story about a disgraced art critic (played by Bang) who tries to make a comeback by presenting himself as someone who has access to a painting by a legendary and reclusive artist. The idea of who gets to decide what is “valuable” art and how those perceptions can determine the price of art are also prominent themes in “The Last Vermeer.”

Both movies also explore issues of social classes and ask this question: Do rich people who spend spend millions on art deserve to be cheated if they are unscrupulous in their lives? It’s a moral and ethical dilemma that comes up later in the story of “The Last Vermeer,” whose “reveal” won’t be spoiled in this review if people don’t know the true story that inspired this movie. It’s enough to say that Han isn’t what he first appears to be at the beginning of the movie, and it’s why Joseph ends up taking his side.

Joseph’s investigation involves unraveling a complicated web of lies about how much art dealers, buyers and sellers knew when they made transactions that resulted in valuable art being owned by high-ranking Nazis. Joseph has a somewhat goofy sidekick named Esper Dekker (Roland Møller), who acts as someone who is ready to physically intimidate people when necessary. Joseph also happens to be Jewish, but for obvious reasons he doesn’t make that information known to a lot of people.

When Joseph enlists Esper’s help, he tells tells Esper: “I want to avoid the Ministry of Justice because they seem to have their own agenda. And that’s why I need you. I need someone I can trust.” An ambitious detective named Alex De Klerks (played by August Diehl) from the Ministry of Justice becomes one of Joseph’s main antagonists, because each man wants the credit and the glory for hunting down the most war criminals in this case. Alex thinks that Joseph is a lowly buffoon (he taunts Joseph for having a former career as a tailor), while Joseph thinks that Alex is a corrupt cop.

Meanwhile, there’s another reason why Joseph is throwing so much of his time and energy into this investigation: His marriage is falling apart, and the investigation is an excuse to spend time away from his wife Leez (played by Marie Bach Hansen), who is also emotionally distant from Joseph. Leez did spy work for the Allied Forces by working as a secretary of a high-ranking Nazi. This espionage work and Joseph spending time away from home because of the war took a toll on their marriage.

Joseph and Leez have a son named Finn (played by Tom Mulheron), who’s about 5 or 6 years old when this story first takes place. But Joseph’s love for his son isn’t enough to want him to spend more time at home. The investigation consumes Joseph to the point where it becomes the top priority in his life.

There are several other people who are part of the investigation, including Joseph’s trustworthy administrative assistant Minna Holmberg (played by Vicky Krieps), who’s a smart, widowed woman in her 20s. (Her husband died in the war.) And when there’s an attractive young assistant who admires her older married boss who’s on the verge of breaking up with his wife, you can pretty much guess what will happen in a movie like this one. It’s completely cliché, but there are many real-life situations that play out exactly like it does in this movie.

Joseph weeds through several people before he gets to what he thinks is the “big fish” in this underground art conspiracy. Han has been named as the the mastermind behind selling extremely valuable Johannes Vermeer paintings to Nazis from 1936 to 1942. The sales of these paintings, plus other art dealings, resulted in Han becoming a very wealthy man. But these art sales have also branded him as a Nazi conspirator and are war crimes that are punishable by death.

During the course of the investigation, Joseph finds out that Han is a flamboyant and charismatic art dealer who has lived a decadent life of hosting lavish, drug-and-alcohol-fueled parties, where high-ranking Nazis were frequent guests. Han also has a free-spirited lover named Cootje Henning (played by Olivia Grant), who is married and not very discreet about the affair. She provides some important information to Joseph, which leads to him discovering some of Han’s secrets.

As a result of his debauched lifestyle and numerous infidelities, Han has gotten divorced from his ex-wife Johana (played by Susannah Doyle), and has curiously let her have almost all of his money and numerous properties in the divorce. By the time that Joseph gets around to questioning Han, this already disgraced art dealer is on his way to being an exile from high society since he’s no longer wealthy and his association with Nazis has made him a pariah.

The more that Joseph uncovers, the more he finds that Han has layers of secrets in his life. Han’s loyalties and motivations aren’t what they initially seem to be. Han started out as a struggling artist but gave up his artist dreams when his first gallery showings were critical and commercial flops. It no doubt fueled his motivation to find wealth and respect in the art world in another way, which was to become an art dealer.

Han’s dealings with Nazis might come as a huge cost to his life. But Joseph becomes convinced that Han is not guilty of what he’s been accused of in court, and Joseph becomes one of Han’s biggest defenders when Han is put on trial. There are some hijinks in the movie that involve Joseph and Esper playing a cat-and-mouse game with Detective De Klerks. A jailbreak scene is somewhat amusing, if not highly dramatized.

However, the real gist of the story comes down to the trial and what happens as the case is laid out and there are twists and turns to the story. As Joseph, Bang is every inch the crusading hero that he’s supposed to be in the movie. He does a very good job in the role, but the character is very transparent and easy to predict.

Pearce’s performance as Han is really the standout in “The Last Vermeer.” Whether or not viewers know what happened in real life with the trial’s outcome, people will be kept guessing over whether or not Han is a hero or a villain. Just like a chess master, Han seems to be steps ahead of everyone else, in terms of things he knows that other people don’t and what he plans for his “end game.”

The movie’s art direction and costume design are on point (people who love European architecture and lavish interior designs will appreciate this film’s attention to detail), but “The Last Vermeer” works best because of the performances of the main actors. Friedkin’s direction is solid, but people with short attention spans might get frustrated during the first third of the movie, which introduces a jumble of characters who might or might not be suspects. “The Last Vermeer” is not an essential movie about post-World War II Europe, but for art aficionados, it’s worth checking out for a dramatic retelling of a very intriguing real-life art mystery.

TriStar Pictures released “The Last Vermeer” in U.S. cinemas on November 20, 2020.

Review: ‘The Burnt Orange Heresy,’ starring Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger and Donald Sutherland

March 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Donald Sutherland, Mick Jagger, Elizabeth Debicki and Claes Bang in “The Burnt Orange Heresy” (Photo by Jose Haro/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Burnt Orange Heresy” 

Directed by Giuseppe Capotondi

Culture Representation: Taking place in Italy and briefly in New York City, the dramatic film “The Burnt Orange Heresy” (which has an all-white cast) tells an intriguing story of secrets and lies in the privileged world of collecting fine art.

Culture Clash: It’s not uncommon for some of the characters to break laws in order to keep up appearances.

Culture Audience: “The Burnt Orange Heresy” will appeal primarily to fans of arthouse cinema who like thrillers about social climbing and people who play guessing games about their true selves.

Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki in “The Burnt Orange Heresy” (Photo by Jose Haro/Sony Pictures Classics)

It’s utterly fitting that rare paintings are the fine art that’s the focus of the noir-ish thriller “The Burnt Orange Heresy.” Because just like a blank canvas, many of the characters in the film have personalities and identities that can shift on a whim and can be designed and painted over in a certain way, in order to be appealing to other people. The movie also takes a blistering look at the fickle and highly subjective nature of fine-art collecting, which places more value on brand names and how art pieces are marketed rather than on the art itself.

In the beginning of the story, which takes place mostly in Italy, viewers meet central character James Figueras (played by Claes Bang), a charismatic Brit who’s an art critic and author. He’s single and living alone living in Milan. The movie’s opening alternates between James giving a lecture to a group of about 50 people (mostly elderly tourists) and his cynical rehearsal of his lecture while he’s at home.

During his speaking appearance, James shows an abstract painting and tells a compelling story about the painting’s artist. James says the artist was a young Norwegian man named Nils, who was 16 when the Nazis invaded Norway in 1940. Nils and his twin sister Nora were kept in a concentration camp, and Nils’ portrait paintings for the Nazis were what helped keep the siblings alive. However, Nils was so ashamed that he was forced to do paintings for the Nazis that he vowed never to paint a human or use a paint brush again when he created paintings. (Nora tragically died of consumption in 1955.)

James then says that the painting he has on display during the lecture is the last painting from Nils. He then asks the audience how many of them would want to buy the painting. Nearly all of them raise their hands. James then reveals that he really did the painting, not Nils, and that almost everything he said about the painting and Nils is a lie. James then asks the audience how many of them would still want to buy the painting. Almost no one raises their hand, except for a young woman sitting in the back of the room.

James tells the audience that this deliberate hoax during the lecture was designed to show the audience how someone’s statement about art carries a great deal of weight in how art is valued. He says that it demonstrates the power of the critic and “why you should be careful around someone like me.” It’s a self-serving concept because James is the author of a book called “The Power of the Critic,” which he happily autographs for the tourists who buy the book after his lecture.

The young female tourist at the back of the room who was the only one to raise her hand after the hoax was revealed approaches James after the lecture. They flirt in a way that indicates that they’re sexually attracted to each other. Her name is Berenice Hollis (played by Elizabeth Debicki), and she’s an American visiting in Italy. After some more flirting, it’s no surprise that James and Berenice end up in bed together at James’ place.

The morning after, as Berenice gets ready to leave, she essentially tells James that she had fun, but she sees their encounter as a one-night stand. James offers her an “upper” pill from a stash he keeps in a pill bottle, and she takes the pill. James then tells her that he’s been asked to go to the Lake Como estate of Joseph Campbell (played by Mick Jagger, in his first movie acting role since 2002’s “The Man From Elysian Fields”), a wealthy art collector. James doesn’t really know why he’s been summoned to Joseph’s villa, but he thinks there’s a possible job opportunity in it for him. James impulsively invites Berenice to join him on the trip, even though they barely know each other. Without much hesitation, she says yes.

As James and Berenice take the scenic drive to Lake Como, a voice mail message being left at James’ empty home can be heard in a voiceover. The female caller leaving the message tells James that his check has bounced and to call her back to sort out the issue. All of this happens within the first 15 minutes of “The Burnt Orange Heresy.” Viewers now know three more things about James: He’s got a drug problem, he’s got a money problem, and he’s got a problem with telling the truth. What could possibly go wrong?

When they arrive at Joseph’s grand villa and are waiting for him in the parlor, James comments to Berenice about the paintings hanging on the wall. He smugly comments that Joseph over-paid for one of the paintings, just as Joseph walks in and hears the tail end of the conversation. Despite overhearing James’ insult, Joseph greets them enthusiastically and sizes up his guests immediately.

It’s here that Berenice reveals more about herself than she did when she was alone with James, because Joseph is the one to ask Berenice about her background. Berenice says she’s from Duluth, Minnesota, but she’s vague about what she does for a living. It’s clear that she wants to fit in with her upper-class surroundings, and she might be hiding something about her past.

James and Berenice are invited to dinner with Joseph, who causally says that he married into wealth, and the estate really belongs to his wife, who’s away because she’s traveling with their children. In order to disarm his visitors, who clearly come from a different social class, manipulative Joseph has revealed that he doesn’t come from a rich family, so that his guests will feel more at ease with him. The tactic works. When James and Joseph are alone together, Joseph tells him the real reason why James was invited for a visit.

Joseph has a big secret: A famously reclusive painter has been living in the guest house on the property. Joseph makes James tries to guess who it is before he reveals the painter’s identity. The famous recluse is Jerome Debney, an American who’s somewhat described as the J.D. Salinger of the art world. Jerome had great success when he was young, but he stopped painting and disappeared at the height of his fame in 1968, after his life’s work was destroyed by a fire. Jerome has been such a recluse for years, that many people in the art world believe the rumor that Jerome is no longer alive.

But now, Jerome has been living in close proximity to Joseph, who doesn’t want the recluse to know that Joseph is aware of Jerome’s true identity. How has Jerome been able to make money for all of these years as a recluse? Jerome has been getting his income from grants, according to Joseph.

James has been summoned to the estate because Joseph wants James to try to get an interview with Jerome. And why was James chosen out of all of the art journalists in the world? One of Joseph’s servants had observed Jerome reading one of James’ articles and heard Jerome commenting out loud that James was an art critic whom he admired.

The interview has an ulterior motive: James is supposed to get close enough to Jerome to steal one of the secret paintings that Joseph is sure that Jerome has done while in seclusion. Joseph hasn’t actually seen any such painting, but he’s certain at least one exists. Joseph says that James will be richly rewarded for this theft, which Joseph plans to pass off as a long-lost Debney painting that might be the only one left in the world.

A skeptical James asks Joseph what’s in it for him if he can only get an interview with Debney, but not a painting. Joseph then turns sinister and tells James that he has to get the painting, or else Joseph will reveal information about James that could completely ruin James’ career. (The blackmail details won’t be revealed in this review.) Joseph also tells James that he knows about an embezzlement scandal from James’ past and that James is having financial difficulties because the scandal damaged his career. It’s why a disgraced James has been reduced to barely living in the margins of the art world by giving art lectures to tourists.

The most contrived part of this movie’s story is how James ends up meeting Jerome (played by Donald Sutherland), a man with a refined demeanor, a Southern lilt to his voice and a mysterious past. While James and Berenice are lounging out by the pool, Jerome happens to casually stroll into the pool area and strike up a conversation with these two strangers, as if he’s a neighbor popping over for a visit anytime he pleases. It’s very out-of-character for a man who’s supposedly been hiding from the world for decades, so viewers will have to suspend their disbelief that Jerome just conveniently walked into James’ life in this manner.

However, the movie’s plot isn’t about the search for Jerome, because he’s already been found. When Jerome first meets James and Berenice, Jerome doesn’t know if they’re aware of his true identity as a famous painter. But James can’t hide being star-struck, and he makes it clear that he knows exactly who Jerome is. In turn, when James introduces himself, Jerome recognizes him as the art critic he admires.

James doesn’t waste time in asking Jerome for an interview, but Jerome doesn’t say yes so easily. He makes James do swimming laps in the pool before he’ll give an answer. James is reluctant at first to do the laps, but Jerome tells him that the longer he hesitates, the more laps he’ll have to do to get the interview.

After he’s sufficiently humiliated James, Jerome surprises James and Berenice by inviting them on a boat ride, followed by a meal back at his place. Jerome says that James can interview him during this excursion. The reason for Jerome’s generosity has less to do with James and more to do with Berenice. Jerome is quite taken with Berenice and relishes spending more time with her. And if she’s with another man, so be it. It’s easy to see why Jerome, as a lonely old man who craves female companionship, would agree to do the interview if Berenice is part of the experience.

The interview is the catalyst for some tension-filled twists and turns in the story. More secrets are revealed, and more lies are told. And the resulting actions will make viewers wonder what they would do if they were in the same situation. (The title of the movie is also explained during the story.)

Throughout the movie, director Giuseppe Capotondi skillfully conveys a tone to the movie that accurately reflects how pretentious the main characters are in the film. They appear to be casually blasé about their connections to the power and privilege in the world of highly priced fine art, but underneath, they’re all desperate for something.

James is desperate for a comeback that will make him and rich and famous. Joseph is desperate for a Debney painting that will considerably elevate Joseph’s status in the art world. Berenice is desperate for validation by people who are more sophisticated than she is. Jerome is desperate to find a human connection after years of isolating himself from the world.

All of the actors play their roles very well by convincingly portraying these superficial yet complicated people, who put on airs that they’re wonderful, yet in reality they’re all deeply flawed. Jagger, in particular, seems to take a delicious relish to his role, since he undoubtedly knows many people like Joseph Campbell. Sutherland (who is Canadian in real life) has played the courtly Southern American gentleman before, but his Jerome Debney character is a little more troubled than he first seems to be.

Bang (who is Danish in real life) has perhaps the movie’s most transparent character to viewers, since we see early on that James is prone to corruption, has a drug problem, and is in dire financial straights. However, the way Bang plays him, there are little glimmers of possibility that James isn’t completely selfish and he might actually be falling in love with Berenice. Debicki (who is Australian in real life) adeptly handles the nuances of her Berenice character, who will keep people guessing about her levels of morality and emotional intelligence.

“The Burnt Orange Heresy” screenplay by Scott B. Smith, based on the book of the same name by Charles Willeford, changes the movie’s era and location from 1970s Florida to modern-day Italy. It’s a wise revision because a Lake Como estate is a more glamorous setting befitting a wealthy international art collector. And the art world has changed dramatically since the 1970s, because the stakes are much higher and the brand names of well-known contemporary artists have reached new levels of fame, thanks to the Internet.

At one point in the movie, Jerome talks about the proverbial masks that people put on to hide their true selves and present another version of themselves to the world. He admits to Berenice in a candid conversation how he’s one of those people who’s put on so many layers of masks, he might not know anymore who he really is underneath it all. More than the quest for a rare painting, “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is about the lengths that people will go to keep putting on those masks and the desperation that results if one of those masks threatens to fall off.

Sony Pictures Classics released “The Burnt Orange Heresy” in New York City and Los Angeles on March 6, 2020. The movie’s U.S. release expands to more cities on March 13, 2020.

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