MIFF Review: Acute Misfortune

Debut writer/director Thomas M. Wright hits an absolute home run with this biopic on troubled artist Adam Cullen. Sporting the fiercest performance by a leading man all year from Daniel Henshall, Acute Misfortune works both as a provocative character study of a collapsing man, and an insight into how devastating mental illness can be.

There’s been a swirling hype machine around this film since it debuted at MIFF this year and, pleasingly to report, it is fairly well justified. Acute Misfortune is the strongest Australian film to be released since Warwick Thornton’s jawdropping Sweet Country landed at the start of the year. What a year for local content we’re having.

Interestingly, the most prominent theme I came across in the 2018 Melbourne International Film Festival programming was men’s mental health and men under pressure. From The Rider, Happy Sad Man, Pig, Mug, Sorry Angel, Hard Paint, Three Identical Strangers, Burning, The Eulogy, Lean on Pete, and In the Land of Wolves, it became really prevalent that men’s well being has been brought into stark focus. Acute Misfortune lives and breathes here.

Archibald prize winning painter Adam Cullen (Henshall), is a brittle man. His deft talent for painting is matched by his abrasive personality and swaying mood swings. Exposed to this is uppity nineteen year old journalist Erik Jensen (Toby Wallace), who’s sent to interview him for a national paper. Initially impressed and enamoured by Cullen’s work and persona, Wallace is invited by the artist to write his biography.

When the locale moves from a Sydney gallery to Cullen’s isolated, ramshackle home in Northern New South Wales, his troubled peccadillos come to sharp focus. And Jensen becomes both witness, victim and agitator of Cullen’s many personal demons and emotional torments.

Crossing the breadths of alcoholism, toxic masculinity, emotional brutality, aching loneliness, and severe mental anguish, playing Adam Cullen is no walk in the park and Daniel Henshall delivers him flawlessly. This is the fiercest portrayal of a real life character to come out of Australia since Henshall first terrified us as John Bunting in Snowtown. His embodies this man, his horrors and malformed psyche, and makes him as empathetic as he is deeply flawed. It’s a titanic performance from a world class actor.

First time director Thomas M. Wright, working from the adaptation of the biography Acute Misfortune that he co-wrote with author Erik Jensen, astounds with his deft handling of the material. Self confessed first attempt at anything filmic (he’s never made a short, either), Wright’s understanding of cinematic language and character is almost faultless. The two central protagonists are well-rounded, extracted and feel real. This guy is one to watch, trust me, he is one helluva find.

Assured to scoop up a slew of prizes both at home and abroad, Acute Misfortune is thunderously great film. It’s a tough, uncompromising character study of a damaged man and the fallout he creates. It’s also an outstanding Australian film.