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Australia 2018
Directed by
Thomas M. Wright
90 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Acute Misfortune

Synopsis:  An account of the relationship between acclaimed Australian painter Adam Cullen (Daniel Henshall) and his biographer Erik Jensen (Toby Wallace).

Perhaps like me, you’ve never heard of Adam Cullen who in 2000 won the Archibald Prize for his portrait of David Wenham and who was the youngest ever subject of a career retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. One can assume on this basis that he was a good painter (he died in 2012 at the age of 46) by contemporary standards but director Thomas M. Wright gives us no indication as to why anyone thought this was so. Rather, his film is a searing account of two men playing out the myth of artistic genius. The medium is largely irrelevant.

Erik Jensen was a nineteen-year-old journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald in 2008 when he was commissioned to write a profile of Cullen. After reading the article, Cullen invited Jensen to write his biography, an offer which immediately appealed to the young man, understandably attracted by such a high-profile assignment. In a way reminiscent of Gary Bond’s hapless school teacher in Wake in Fright (1970) Jensen soon found himself considerably out of his depth with the volatile, antagonistic celebrity painter some twenty years his senior

Cullen, played with intimidating intensity by Henshall who was so scary in Snowtown (2001) another film which like this dealt with the dark underbelly of mateship, was a burly, verbally abusive, probably sociopathic individual with a mother fixation and a shaven head but a full beard who favoured army camoflague wear. When he wasn’t painting he was randomly shooting stuff with his small armoury of high-powered weaponery on his remote Blue Mountains property and feeding his heroin habit.  It is no surprise that Cullen collaborated with self-confessed murderer and career criminal Mark 'Chopper' Read for their children’s book, ‘Hooky the Cripple’. To say he was a difficult individual would be the understatement of the year.  As the film makes amply clear, to be his callow post-adolescent amanuensis would have been harrowing. For Jensen's trouble he was lied to, shot in the leg, and pushed off a moving motorcycle by Cullen.

Adapted from Jensen’s book of the same name by the journalist with Wright, Acute Misfortune charts the former’s rocky relationship with Cullen from their first meeting in 2008 to the artist’s death. Actor-turned-debut-director Wright eschews a conventional narrative form but rather employs an impressionistic, fly-on-the-wall documentary style with the camera kepping his subjects close. It is a very effective approach that takes us into the two men's relationship but to be so intimate with such a crudely bitter and self-destructive individual, talented as he apparently was, is not going to be an experience that I can imagine a lot of people wanting to have.




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