Typist Artist Pirate King review – cleverly picks apart biopic clichés

Movie

Carol Morley constructs a creative tribute to the artist Audrey Amiss, who created thousands of artworks but remained mostly unknown until her death in 2013.

Let’s be frank: nine times out of 10, biographical films about artists are total, hagiographic pap. When you’re making a film about the life of a famous person, there’s so much baggage relating to legacy, image, historical record, and how to amply elicit the meaning of vital events in their lives in a way that’s both diplomatic and creative.

To even up the odds, though, you can always spend a bit of time searching for a subject who feels truly worthy of cinematic celebration, which is exactly what Carol Morley has done with her wonderful new film, Typist Artist Pirate King. The strange title refers to the occupation printed on the passport of one Audrey Amiss. It’s a document that was discovered during efforts to inventory the vast and bizarre artistic holdings she left upon her death in 2013.

As essayed in a tremendously committed and complex performance by one of Britain’s greatest actors, Monica Dolan, we meet Amiss in her pokey Clapham bedsit which is bursting at the seams with scrapbooks stuffed with lovingly mounted junk food packaging and whimsical annotations. She wails, curses and monologues about a life pockmarked with breakdowns and missed opportunities, yet a certain plucky spirit prevails, and the film kicks off proper when she coerces her exasperated care worker Sandra (Kelly Macdonald) to take a road trip back to her birthplace of Sunderland for an exhibition of her work.

The chemistry between Dolan and Macdonald is pure Withnail and I, with Amiss presented as a tragic chatterbox whose splenetic rants are peppered with moments of droll poetry. Sandra, meanwhile, is on the constant verge of slamming on the breaks and leaving Audrey on the hard shoulder of a motorway. Indeed, Morley reveals a heretofore unseen knack for comedy, not just in the surreally witty dialogue, but in the deadpan staging and framing which references (but never speaks down to) the kitsch artefacts present in Amiss’ own work. This road trip framework is used as a way for Audrey to work through various life issues, as she (more than Sandra) knows that this epic voyage needs to end with a mass purging of personal demons via a visit to her level-headed sister, Dorothy (Gina McKee).

This is a film that ends up comprising much more than the sum of its picaresque parts, as Morley filters in a damning, yet subtle commentary on England’s woeful mental health provisions, arts funding cuts in the north, the Catholic church’s inability to amply console its flock, and the weird beauty that we potentially miss from dismissing eccentric people at face value.

The larky tone is punctuated with spartan montages of Amiss’ work, presented in a way that is both dryly ironic and true to the artist’s mischievous spirit. Not everything in the film works, and there’s the odd rough edge here and there. But these are easily forgiven in light of the fact that it’s so clear that Morley is pushing to make a shrine that her subject may have appreciated as well as a statement about an England in decline that is bold, angry but never once cynical.

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Published 26 Oct 2023

Tags: Carol Morley

Anticipation.

Carol Morley is a maverick who follows her storytelling instincts down some strange paths.

Enjoyment.

A delight, and a film which cleverly picks apart the clichés of the timeworn artist biopic.

In Retrospect.

It’s Audrey Amiss’ world, etc…

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