‘Acute Misfortune’: skewering the Australian art world

When a journalist profiles a subject, they’re faced with an unbearable choice: should they befriend them or keep a cold journalistic distance? 

The former is riddled with pitfalls of false promises and puts objectivity on the line, while the latter risks accuracy and superficiality, a professional failure. Acute Misfortune concerns a choice of the middle ground; to befriend without trust.
The new film is a biopic of controversial Australian painter Adam Cullen, adapted from Saturday Paper editor Erik Jensen’s book. Written by Jensen and director Thomas M.Wright in his directorial debut, Acute Misfortune succeeds for the same reason as the biography: it doesn’t try to reconstruct his entire life. The film sifts through a myriad of twisted threads and pretentious soundbites to distil his fragmented final years.
It begins with Jensen (played by Toby Wallace) as a precocious 19-year-old journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, tasked with profiling Cullen (Daniel Henshall). Jensen interviews him at his Blue Mountains studio, and Cullen, shocked at the resulting article’s calibre (“Fuck...you’re a writer mate,”) asks him to be his biographer, supposedly at a publisher’s behest. Jensen, already sick of the news desk routine, naively accepts the task and is subsequently led into an abusive and dependent power relationship during a harrowing decline in Cullen’s health and personal life.
Acute Misfortune might just be the best Australian film of the last ten years. It’s a challenge to the streak of larrikinism in Australian culture and an understated denouncement of the enveloping male artist mystique. Daniel Henshall’s performance as Cullen is magnetically repulsive, a macabre cinematic villain that self-consciously invokes the convict spirit of Australian film. As Cullen oscillates between Chopper-style facial hair, and the fedora adorned bald artist, Henderson impeccably embodies his volatility. Cullen came to prominence through painting vile criminals with indifference to their wrongdoings, and the film suggests in his later years his own character had begun to reflect his painterly subjects. Toby Wallace – previously seen on Australian screens as a young Michael Hutchence – works well with the contradictory introversion of Jensen, though his function is largely passive.
Stefan Duscio and Germain McMicking’s cinematography closely inhabits Jensen’s jittery psyche, as he attempts to know Cullen’s. Cullen stalks Jensen in every room, spitting out pre-prepared quotes with relish and self-aware pretension. A shallow focus keeps Cullen and Jensen’s uneven relationship as the voyeuristic centre of screen, uninterested in the shifting tides of the world outside. This does result in a few gratuitous inner turmoil clichés (Jensen standing on rocks at the beach with waves rolling in reverse) but by and large, the film’s elliptical editing paints Jensen’s travails with Cullen as terrifying vignettes across an episodic 90-minute run time.
Jensen’s inability to stay away from Cullen over the four years, despite the degree to which Cullen goes to alienate him, is a potent structural device because it highlights a broader question – why was this man so loved? Many will come away from the film to read the numerous obituaries written of Cullen and be shocked at the dripping reverence from friends and most uncomfortably, the art world. Acute Misfortune provides a microcosmic antidote to this male artist mystique that continues to permeate art commentary. Wright refreshingly approaches the material as a fan of Jensen’s biography and not of Cullen’s work, and so his art is deployed sparingly and effectively. Evelyn Ida Morris’ score is composed of tense and ethereal mixes of drone and twinkling piano to capture the ambience of Cullen’s artworld madness.
Acute Misfortune is already the recipient of The Age’s award for best Australian feature at MIFF, and it’d hardly be surprising if went on to win more. The vivid psychological portraiture of Cullen has a universality to it that could sear the image of the back of his bald white head into international cinema.