8 Jul 2020

The Burnt Orange Heresy

From At The Movies, 7:33 pm on 8 July 2020

The Burnt Orange Heresy finds a corrupt art critic trying to get an interview with a famously reclusive painter. It stars Claes Bang (The Square), Elizabeth Debicki (Widows) and Mick Jagger.

Simon Morris: The Burnt Orange Heresy is about cheats, liars and critics…

Like I'm sure most of you, I'd never heard of the source novel of a new film called The Burnt Orange Heresy - though it is one of those titles that you need to repeat several times before it sinks in.

But you can't deny the attractive cast on the poster - two fascinating veterans, Donald Sutherland and Mick Jagger, and two stars on the rise, from Denmark Claes Bang and Australian Elizabeth Debicki.

The Burnt Orange Heresy was written by American crime novelist Charles Willford back in 1971, though for some reason it feels older. I'm not the only one who detects a touch of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels in the tone.

The story deals with four people who, one way or another, all trade on lies and secrets.

That's art critic James Figueras, who's spent the last few years demystifying art criticism, though you get the idea he's getting a bit sick of it.

But he knows the power of the art critic - the expert who can add or subtract value to a work with a stroke of his pen. And there are other perks too.

Her name, she says, is Berenice, a beautifully judged performance by Elizabeth Debicki, an actress who's been on the verge of something better for a while now.

Berenice has left small-town America under some sort of a cloud, and she's trying out the role of arm-candy with people like James.

James takes Berenice to Lake Como in Italy, to meet the celebrated art dealer Joseph Cassidy - a role that shows that Mick Jagger can actually act, he was just too rich and famous to ever take it seriously!

Cassidy dangles an attractive proposition in front of James - the chance to interview the most famous, reclusive artist in the world, Jerome Debney.

James can't believe his luck, but first, he has to persuade the unpersuadable Debney to go along with it.

And Debney - a gloriously cryptic Donald Sutherland - seems far more interested in silent strolls with Berenice than interviews with the nakedly ambitious James.

The particular attraction for James, for Cassidy the dealer - even for Berenice, now a fan of the sophisticated Debney - is that no-one has seen a genuine Debney painting for 50 years, ever since a famous fire in Paris destroyed the artist's life's work.

But it's clear that not one of the four lead characters is telling the complete truth. And at least two of them plan to do whatever it takes to not only get their hands on a genuine modern masterpiece but find a way to raise its value.

But what is the meaning behind Debney's unseen work The Burnt Orange Heresy? Does it mean anything at all?

The Burnt Orange Heresy feels like something from another era - authors like Chandler and Highsmith, Eric Ambler and Daphne DuMaurier.

These characters are elusive and slippery - anti-heroes, women on the make and people not quite as smart as they think.

I certainly had no idea where The Burnt Orange Heresy was heading after the first major twist.

And I stayed with it, admiring its skill rather than being lured in by the, frankly, mostly unappealing quartet of crooks and liars.

No reflection on the acting though. It's the best I've seen Jagger in a straight drama, though I have higher hopes for Elizabeth Debicki in something a little more worthy of her talents.

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