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IFFR 2024 Big Screen Competition

Review: The Worst Man in London


- Rodrigo Areias’s new feature, set in Victorian-era London, is a portrait of the wicked machinations of the art world

Review: The Worst Man in London

To describe someone as “the worst” is a bold statement. That was the term Arthur Conan Doyle used to describe Charles Augustus Howell, a real-life art dealer and blackmailer from the 19th century: the so-called worst man in London. This expression constitutes the title of Rodrigo Areias’s new film, which partook in the Big Screen Competition at IFFR, and which delves into the life of this historical figure.

Set in Victorian-era London, The Worst Man in London portrays the Pre-Raphaelite setting in which Howell was active alongside key figures like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lizzie Siddal and John Ruskin, amongst others. Throughout the film, we’re invited to join numerous gatherings that take place in spaces of luxury and nocturnal decadence, but blackmail and mischief are never far away. In a balanced blend of light and darkness, we’re presented with situations that revolve around disclosed and undisclosed information, and truthful and untruthful conversations, and all the while, deals in the art “game” are being made.

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Howell is at the centre of this movie as a middle man, a presumed pawn that connects different parts of the game’s “board”: artists and collectors. We follow all of the deals, talks, twists and turns that unfurl throughout the film. With both clear and unclear intentions of personal gain emerging – for Howell and others – the title everything starts off with is then appended with a question mark: was this actually the worst man?

Here, Howell is presented as a multi-faceted prism. In one of the first scenes, Dante whispers in confidence to his wife, Lizzie Sidall: “What a bunch of vampires.” It’s a statement that, in fact, shrewdly describes all of the dynamics at play. The director certainly doesn’t attempt to absolve Howell of his real-life malicious actions (some of which are presented in the film), and he’s shown as a bad man playing a wicked game, but he’s also someone embodying his surroundings. He reflects the art world of the time in a nutshell, perhaps: the bad, sometimes the good, always the talk and sometimes the art. The great performance by Albano Jerónimo, combined with some on-point costume design for the character (with the right mix of discreet and outlandish elements), creates some compelling ingredients that naturally draw our attention to the protagonist.

The narrative mainly traces Howell’s path. Nonetheless, there is an attempt to deviate from this and shed more light on the lives of some of the other historical figures – one of those is Lizzie Sidall (played by Victória Guerra). In this period film, shot in an overall very effective way, it feels only right that it’s with Sidall, an artist who suffered a tragic end to her life, that we get to experience the most blissful moment of the feature. Art, body and cinema combine: the real-life and the painted, immortalised Ophelia meet, in a very transparent, truthful cinematic way. Beyond this scene, her essence is naturally exuded throughout, thanks to the poetic performance by Guerra.

Even though we have a cinematic space with and for Sidall, as well as with and for other characters, the journey through all of these elements and stories combined occasionally leads to some loose ends. In a portrait that can also be a tad too intricate at times, some spots feel too heavily painted, whilst others are left to dry untouched. Yet even just by gliding over some of this surface, with knots to untie and blanks left to fill in, one can still grasp the essence of what the art world used to be – and what it maybe still resembles.

The Worst Man in London is a production by Portugal’s Leopardo Filmes in association with APM Produções, Alfama Films Production and Viva Devagar. Alfama Films also handles its international sales.

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