Here is a diverting, self-conscious fantasy sketch of gay life and gay sensibility composed of what the film-maker imagines or remembers of bygone Soho’s lost bohemianism. Its creator is Steve McLean, a former video director returning to cinema after a long personal hiatus following his last feature, Postcards from America in 1994, based on the writings of artist David Wojnarowicz. Both the dialogue and the mise-en-scène of this new film are stylised and theatrical, shot entirely in a darkened studio space, and there are echoes of Derek Jarman. For some, this might be borderline insufferable, but I found it interestingly innocent and high-minded – and aspirational, too, in an unexpected way.
Harris Dickinson plays Jim, an Essex teenager with an interest in art history who arrives in London hoping to make his fortune, but gets roped into a peculiarly refined sort of prostitution. A garrulous group of intellectual rent boys with a specific interest in Caravaggio hook him up with older men of artistic leanings who adore Jim’s exquisite beauty. One haggard painter of the Bacon/Freud vintage even claims him as his muse. But Jim has a secret malady or superpower – in the face of great art he suffers a kind of convulsion, in the course of which he hallucinates himself into the painting. So wealthy dealers pay him to stand in front of paintings they need to authenticate – just to see if he succumbs to a fit.
It really is very strange, with every idea, every scene, every moment lavishly garnished with floridly serious, mannered language. A little of it goes a long way. Jim at one stage confesses he had a crush on his art teacher because he sounded as if he’d “swallowed a dictionary”. This film has done something similar, but I liked its idealism.