Wwith natural sympathy and warmth, filmmaker Carol Morley has created this sympathetic, generous, imaginative response to the work of the neglected English artist Audrey Amiss, played here with beady-eyed gusto by Monica Dolan. And if the film finally has a bit of a soft center, it’s partly because of Morley’s refusal to fetishize the supposedly transfigurative pain of mental illness.
Sunderland-born Amiss trained as a painter at the Royal Academy in the 1950s, had a breakdown and was in and out of institutions for the rest of her life, finally taking a secretarial job but restlessly creating unsold and unseen art, in the form of crude impressionistic sketches of her daily existence and an autofictional collage journal of found objects—packaging, flyers, brochures—to which she added stream-of-consciousness diary entries, a continuously updated real-time manuscript record of a hidden life. It is kept in an archive at the Wellcome Library in London, which Morley was the first to review (cinemas will surely come later). She discovered Amiss’s passport with its scribbled entry under Occupation: “Typist Artist Pirate King”.
In some ways, this is like Morley’s 2011 documentary Dreaming of a life, which attempted to reconstruct the life of a mysterious forgotten woman who left no direct testimony after her tragic death. Here, Morley has a huge amount of archival material to draw on, but has instead chosen to build an imagined narrative from just a few telling details: an old-fashioned road movie.
Dolan plays Amiss in a chaotic London flat, twitching and jerking off a sort of vigilante despite misfortune, always suspecting conspiracies against her, brooding over the past. Kelly Macdonald plays an imaginary social worker Sandra who comes once a fortnight to endure an incessant barrage of abuse from Amiss. Willful and impossible and utterly ungrateful, Amiss demands that Sandra drive her to a “local” art gallery advertised in the newspaper where she is sure she can finally be exhibited. Against her better judgement, Sandra agrees, and Audrey does not reveal an address, airily assuring Sandra that she will provide directions. It’s only after they’ve been on the road for a while that Audrey reveals that she means “local” in the sense of local where she was born: they drive to Sunderland for a big showdown with her childhood and her sister Dorothy (Gina McKee). Sandra has no choice but to agree and to add insult to injury, nicknames Audrey Sandra Panza.
From here, Audrey hallucinates and misinterprets almost everything presented to her senses, but never fails to collect it all in her bulging scrapbook. Without Dolan’s boisterous performance and without Macdonald’s intelligent sensibility to balance it, this would have been less than the sum of its parts. The cast works with the writing and the darkly comic and tragicomic nature of their trials are often hilarious. Dolan’s Amiss is almost unbearable in her incessant babbling: she never stops talking, never stops condemning and justifying herself, no matter how much she disgraces herself in public. When she insists on driving for a while and naturally crashes into a tree, she rhapsodizes in her deployed airbag about the artistic qualities of the tree and attacks Sandra for not appreciating it.
Like many road movies, this may be headed in one direction – toward revelation and catharsis of the kind Amiss may never have known in his lifetime. But it is incredibly shot by Agnès Godard and the compassion in the film is palpable. Now we need a real exhibition of Amiss’s work.