Throwing it back to Spring 2020, I remember seeing posters for The Burnt Orange Heresy, a very serious-looking film starring rock’n’roll legend Mick Jagger. ‘If it features a rock star, it must be bad, right?‘ my brain said. Well, brain, you were wrong…
Claes Bang (The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Dracula) is James Figueras, a haughty art critic working out of Italy teaching tourists the basics in history, technique and the big names. Enter Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki), posing as a tourist/student/fan of Figueras, who’s interested in getting to know him better.
After sharing a couple of raunchy nights together, James invites Berenice along with him to meet the incredibly wealthy art dealer Joseph Cassidy, played by the one and only Jagger. Cassidy welcomes the couple to his lavish home, sitting along the banks of Lake Como, where they eat, drink, swim…and talk business.
Cassidy knows James is very good at his job and wants him to put his schmoosing to the test by landing an interview with beloved painter, Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland). Debney’s name is acknowledged and respected around the globe, but as an old man he’s now a recluse, living in a small property on the edge of Cassidy’s land. Cassidy, rubbing his grubby little mitts together, wants James to secure him a one-off Debney piece, as so few remain after a fire years back.
One day, while swimming in the pool, James and Berenice meet Debney as he wanders over to introduce himself – and James hatches a plan. While Berenice escorts Debney on a lake sail, James visits the house to locate Debney’s ‘back catalogue’ of paintings and take one. However, when he fails to break in, and Debney declines to take part in a recorded conversation, James takes this as a personal rebuke…and will now do anything to get his hands on a Debney.
I won’t say much more as I genuinely didn’t know where the story was going to take me, so I don’t want to spoilt it for you. What I will say is The Burnt Orange Heresy is a twisty-turny tale of deception, anger and power, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
As with so many films I’ve watched recently, I’ve appreciated being whisked away to another land, somewhere that isn’t flat, grey Essex in midwinter. Italy in the summer will do nicely, and director Giuseppe Capotondi (The Double Hour) shoots it so beautifully; you can feel the sun on your skin as we watch Debicki take a dip, as Sutherland takes a stroll. The choice of locations, mise-en-scene and general splendor really add to the lingering ‘money’ vibe, and help amp up the power struggle between our various characters.
From the outset, Bang as James is unlikeable. Arrogant, headstrong and rude, he’s the perfect bad guy. Introduced to Debicki as Berenice, we’re made to believe that she’s as dirty as he is and that they’ll both have fun together getting one over on ol’ man Sutherland, but her facade slips after spending time with warm, gentle Debney. And if James is at the far end of the ‘asshole’ scale, with Berenice and Debney sitting comfortably at the other, that leaves Jagger as Cassidy lingering somewhere in the middle – and I love him for it. He’s rich, powerful and cocky – but is he capable of more? Will he stoop to James’ level?
I thought I knew where Capotondi was taking us (with the story adapted from Charles Willeford‘s novel by the same name), but as James sinks deeper into his deception, we lose our footing too. Smart, sarcastic Berenice, with her own tales to tell, tries to act as James’ saviour, to slap him back into reality. But when that ends miserably, it’s just James at the top, looking down at the mess he’s created. Maybe if he’d played ‘awful human’ less obviously, I would’ve been even more shocked by the final few scenes, but regardless – I enjoyed this. Jagger, too, plays the slick and slimey art dealer a little too well (‘hammy’ comes to mind), but he’s still an enjoyable watch.
Part-crime thriller, part-travel porn, The Burnt Orange Heresy was a surprise for me. After not-so-great reviews published during its initial release, I had low expectations. I’m glad to say it surpassed them. Pick this one up if you’re in the mood for a slow burner (and it’s only 90 minutes!).