(director/writer: John Maybury; cinematographer: John Mathieson; editor: Daniel Goddard; cast: Derek Jacobi (Francis Bacon), Daniel Craig (George Dyer), Tilda Swinton (Muriel Belcher), Anne Lambton (Isabel Rawsthorne), Adrian Scarborough (Daniel Farson), Karl Johnson (John Deakin), Annabel Brooks (Henrietta Moraes); Runtime: 91; Strand Releasing; 1998-UK)
“Whatever I think of Bacon and his art work I was, nevertheless, still dazzled by the breathless performance of Derek Jacobi.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Simply put, the renown British artist, Francis Bacon (Jacobi) is not a very nice person. This is a true-to-life portrait of one of this century’s most celebrated artists, as the film covers his work from the periods of the 1960s-through the-1970s. Bacon’s specialty in painting the macabre is examined. But, the film offers very little concrete arguments for him to be considered as a great artist (we saw none of his actual paintings on display–though excellent reproductions were presented; I realize that this was no fault of the director, since Bacon’s estate refused to grant permission for their use).

That Bacon is a great artist, is debatable; but what is not subject to debate, is the brilliant performance by Derek Jacobi (a virtuoso one) and the fine supporting performance by his lover who is the foil for all his nasty wit, Daniel Craig (George). Both exhibit a forcefulness and a subtle irony for their character that leaves no doubt that they have mastered their subject rather well, leaving no sharp stone unturned, so to speak.

In the very first shot Bacon is diabolically smelling the pillow from an obvious lover who just left his flat, an image that reminded me so much of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

Soon Bacon is confronted with a crashing sound from his skylight flat and there is George Dyer, a lower-class London Eastender, a petty criminal and burglar who gets caught by Bacon as he is robbing his flat. They immediately become lovers and begin a relationship that mystifies both their circle of friends. George’s friends think he has joined up with a bunch of poofs, while Bacon’s clique of vipers are titillated to no end by this unholy union. They make sniping remarks directed at how dull George is, trying to get the devilish Bacon to say what he sees in him. George will heretofore become the model for Bacon’s decadent and lifeless figures, as well as his almost full-time lover, except when Bacon picks up an odd stud or two and locks the hapless George out of the studio flat. He will also generously support George with money and proper clothing and booze.

George and Bacon are almost complete opposites able to use each other for whatever it is worth, is part of the fascination of the bleak material covered. The film becomes an exercise in excesses and debauchery, with Bacon coldly referring to his relationship with George as “he’s the man who does odd jobs for me once in a while.”

But somewhere in the seven-year relationship between George and Bacon, Bacon tires of him and chooses to let the demise of George become complete without showing one bit of concern for him. This should not be too surprising, because he proudly tells us that he is optimistic about nothing and finds beauty in the suffering and bloodshed of others. To Bacon there’s beauty in a car accident, as he relates to how it excites him to see the bodies lie randomly on the road; and, at a professional fight we see how he nearly has an orgasm in public when he gets splattered with the boxer’s blood.

Bacon’s precarious decadent lifestyle often shines as brightly as his visual images. His artistic oeuvre is presented through these visions rather than on framed paintings, and this is stupendously done by a brilliant stroke of filmmaking as the artist’s soul was seen crawling out of the recesses of his warped but talented mind. This is enhanced by the use of distorted lenses and mirrored images and shaded colorings and quick editing of the images.

The nonlinear story is transcribed for the most part either in Bacon’s studio or in the bar where his circle of friends hold court. Bacon who is the submissive one in sex, is the ever aggressive and dominant one otherwise. George, who foolishly tells him that he loves him, is quickly admonished with the following put down from the master: “from what bad TV show did you get that from?”

I must confess I never cared for Bacon’s art, though somewhat impressed with the raw power of his blood curdling images and the deathlike objectivity he gives his work. But I was put off with his inability to reach farther back into the human soul and see what the whole being is like as the truly great artists such as a Blake or Durer can, who know of both good and evil as similar energies. To know one of the contraries is not enough, as it probably means that you can’t even see that as clearly as you should. In Bacon’s case evil is mostly felt as a raging flux inside. It is something Jacobi captured on the screen, which made this film a very special one. It is rare that an actor can really sense the mood and spirit of an artist. What comes to my mind is the risible performances of Charlton Heston as Micheangelo and Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh, or more recently Leonard Di Caprio trying to be convincing as a fictional artist in Titanic. Their lack of credibility as artists, were enough to make the films they were in seem phony.

But whatever I think of Bacon and his art work I was, nevertheless, still dazzled by the breathless performance of Derek Jacobi and by first-time director Maybury’ provocative presentation. He was able to translate that artistic inspiration onto the screen — which is no easy feat to do. The director was also able to accurately catch the London gay scene of the 1960s.