As a first feature, John Maybury’s Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon is brave, imaginative and episodic. The sex scenes are blurred, as if sadomasochistic love making between consenting males would be too much for the sensibilities of those who watch and wait. Where the film falters is in character development. Bacon (Derek Jacobi) remains the tortured queen throughout, although you never quite know what drives his furies, and George Dyer (Daniel Craig), the thief who stays, is an enigma, always the outsider amongst the flaming poofs at The Colony Room Club, a solitary drunk whose nightmares are more vivid than his personality.

Bacon’s estate refused to allow reproductions of his paintings to be shown, which enables Maybury to avoid the cliché of littering the artist’s studio with well known works, now worth millions. Instead, Jacobi stands in front of a naked canvas and attacks it with paint.

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Using cunning camera angles the director is constantly making reference to Bacon’s style, with its contorted faces and blurring of figures, when what you are hoping for is an understanding of the relationship between an East London petty criminal and the most famous painter in England. As Bacon tires of Dyer, there is little left to do but observe alcohol and drugs destroy George, as the great man is honoured in Paris.

In his first starring screen role, Craig is a brooding presence, flaunting his perfect physique, without a hint of camp. As Dyer suffers from Bacon’s indifference and sexual demands, he doesn’t do a runner with a couple of sketch books under his arm. He stays, too weak to resist, too drugged to fight, and Craig goes under in style, wearing Y-fronts and a look of incomprehensible despair.

If Jacobi plays Francis with the affectations of an entertainer and a gossip, the artist suffers. Where is the anguish and the anger of this man whose paintings screamed at life’s abuse and the absence of love? Not at The Colony, where Muriel Belcher (an unrecognisable Tilda Swinton in cracking form) ruled with the plumped up vowels of a dirty minded dowager.

Reviewed on: 04 Sep 2008
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The artist as gay icon and the thief who stayed.
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Director: John Maybury

Writer: John Maybury

Starring: Derek Jacobi, Daniel Craig, Tilda Swinton, Anne Lambton, Adrian Scarborough, Karl Johnson, Annabel Brooks, Richard Newbould, Ariel de Ravenel, Tallulah, Andy Linden

Year: 1998

Runtime: 90 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK/France/Japan


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