The Burnt Orange Heresy (2019)

As the UK returns to another month long period of long down, I must return to the tried and tested world of VOD for at least the next few weeks. Uncharacteristically, this time of year when I would usually be starting to encounter a string of real Oscar contenders is turning out to be rather slim pickings. With interesting looking releases few and far between right now, I opted for The Burnt Orange Heresy.

Based on a 1971 novel by Charles Willeford, The Burnt Orange Heresy tells the story of James Figueras (Claes Bang), an art critic who is enlisted by a rich collector (played by Mick Jagger) to interview and ultimately steal a work of art by one of the world’s most famously reclusive painters, Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland).

Here’s the thing. This movie markets itself as something of an ‘art world thriller’, with the distinct failure of not being particularly thrilling until the last five or ten minutes. All of the ingredients are here to make something really interesting, but unfortunately what unfolds on screen is rather dull with the exception of a very condensed and underplayed set of climactic scenes.

Perhaps I don’t know enough about art or haven’t spent enough time in the atmosphere of the art world, but the air of pretension and smugness that permeates across the narrative makes for very off putting viewing. Long, luxurious musings about the impact and importance of various art movements and individuals make up the bulk of the film’s dialogue, and whilst there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that when it is done well, the lines uttered in The Burnt Orange Heresy feel incredibly self indulgent and inorganic. The whole thing is very much a case of ‘actors saying lines’ rather than ‘characters having conversations’, and it starts to get quite grating as the minutes tick by.

The premise of the film is promising enough, an art theft with lots of personal baggage interwoven throughout the plot, but there is just something about it that falls incredibly flat. There is a certain aesthetic charm to the picture, but aside from looking pretty and boasting attractive locations, there is very little that catches ones attention in the intended way. Don’t go in expecting any kind of high octane heist flick, you certainly won’t find one here. For a film labeled a ‘thriller’, The Burnt Orange Heresy is about as slow moving and placid as you can get.

That is, of course, until the final fifteen or so minutes, which is so different in tone that it feels like it has been tacked on from another film entirely. These closing scenes are the least ‘delicate’ and nuanced in the picture, but to be honest I found them to be the most arresting. Far too little too late.

The impact of the cast is very hit and miss here, with some good and some not so good performances. I found myself rather unimpressed by Claes Bang as protagonist James Figueras. It becomes clear as the plot progresses that James is a very layered character, but Bang doesn’t quite manage to portray those different layers when they are needed. It’s a rather one note performance in my opinion, and one that lacks a lot of required charisma.

I haven’t even mentioned her yet, but Elizabeth Debicki is one of the brighter spots in the film even if both her presence and her character are completely wasted. Debicki plays Berenice Hollis, a new romantic acquaintance of James who joins him on his journey, and the character has so much potential but ultimately just serves as a tragic tool to display the male protagonist’s downfall. She remains deliberately mysterious throughout, but Berenice is arguably the only character that the audience feel any kind of attachment to, making the way that she is used in the plot even harder to take.

As Jerome Debney, Donald Sutherland handles the pretentious dialogue better than the rest of his cast mates, probably thanks to his assured screen presence and the fact that he is leaning into some of the stereotypical ‘reclusive artist’ eccentricities that suit a story like this. As art dealer and collector Joseph Cassidy, Mick Jagger is, well Mick Jagger! It’s not his fault, he’s just one of those figures in the world of celebrity that can’t be anyone but himself, like Cher in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again!

Overall, I’m sure you can tell that I wasn’t a big fan of The Burnt Orange Heresy. What is probably a very complex and developed story in novel form makes for a very slow paced, pretentious art drama that all of a sudden goes crazy at the end to very frenetic effect. It just doesn’t translate well when condensed into 90 minutes. Elizabeth Debicki and Donald Sutherland try their best to bring something of quality to the proceedings, but everything else around them is operating about three or four levels below, and that just ain’t gonna cut it.

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