Review: Typist Artist Pirate King
- British director Carol Morley puts her faith in lead actress Monica Dolan as she takes the audience on an imagined road trip during the life of “outsider artist” Audrey Amiss
After 2011’s semi-documentary Dreams of a Life [+see also:
film profile], which explored the life of a woman whose remains were discovered more than two years after she died, British director Carol Morley returns to the subject of those who somehow slipped through the cracks of society. This time, she tackles the life of artist Audrey Amiss, who – whilst lauded since her death at the age of 79 in 2013 – spent much of her life unrecognised, partly owing to constant struggles with mental illness. In Typist Artist Pirate King [+see also:
interview: Carol Morley
film profile] – named after what Amiss (a prolific traveller during her life) put in her passport as her occupation – Morley takes us on an imagined road trip during Amiss’s life that aims to place the often-neglected artist back into her rightful place in history. After premiering at Tallinn Black Nights in 2022, it recently had its UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival.
Audrey Amiss (Monica Dolan) – beset by problems brought on by schizophrenia – stays holed up in her London flat, surrounded by her artwork. Raging from albums filled with notes, letters and cut-out food packaging to numerous sketches inspired by everyday life, her art is prolific, but her existence seems a lonely one. But with her unique sense of persuasion, Audrey convinces her psychiatric nurse, Sandra (Kelly Macdonald), to embark on a road trip to the former’s home city of Sunderland, where she hopes she can display her work at a local gallery. As the duo head towards the North of England, Audrey – amidst episodes of mania – begins to reveal more about her life, from the time she spent in psychiatric wards to a mysterious episode in her teenage years. Just what will be discovered when they arrive?
Many moments of the film (such as Sandra’s willingness to go along with Audrey’s plan) stretch the bounds of credulity. But it becomes clear that this is a stylistic choice, as Morley consistently plays with many of the tenets of British social realism. Several moments during the journey – such as Audrey’s disturbing encounter with a sleazy driver or her “coronation” by a bunch of war gamers – come across as small fables, meetings conjured up by Audrey’s imagination as she wanders through the complex canyons of her mind. But there are also moments of more stark realism (such as her encounter with the police after an “episode” at a hotel) that remind us that Audrey’s mental illness is not something that should be romanticised as a creative muse. Morley flits between these two worlds, offering us both the dreamlike and the real.
It can make for an often staccato and disjointed affair. While the narrative offers some cohesion (particularly concerning the mystery surrounding the incident in Audrey’s past), it’s Dolan who brings everything together. Still one of the UK’s most underrated actresses, she’s brilliant as a mass of contradictions, fearsome anger and heartbreaking vulnerability.
While it is very much a love letter to Amiss and her work, it is also a bitter swipe at the British artistic establishment and society in general. Indeed, while her very real mental illness was understandably a huge obstacle (though one partly created by her chronic mistreatment in hospitals), the film does suggest that Amiss’s being both a female and from the North were things that hampered her subsequent career.
While it is sometimes messy and chaotic, there’s a passion and a verve here that give the film genuine heart. The goodwill for Morley’s previous work should see some more festival screenings and VoD success over the coming months.
Typist Artist Pirate King is a UK film staged by Cannon and Morley Productions in association with MBK Productions. Its international sales are handled by Metro International Entertainment.
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