The Critics: The pope of putrefaction

cinema; Love Is the Devil 18

Derek Jacobi has finally managed to find himself a film part that measures up to his talents. At a time when most of his acting contemporaries - the McKellens, the Holms, the Hawthornes - are the darlings of Hollywood, he's been left behind, stuck in Cadfael's cassock, and rather too reliant on the favours of Kenneth Branagh (who cast him in Dead Again and Hamlet) for film roles.

This might be because he's never truly been part of the theatrical establishment, having always preferred to work outside the big subsidised companies. Or it might just be the toll that age has taken on him: the shape of his face has changed a lot in the past few years. It has filled out, and taken on a look of raddled helplessness that probably makes him more difficult to cast.

Not that this is a bad thing. He might have lost his cheekbones, but age has lent Jacobi's distinctive mixture of airy wistfulness and veiled savagery a new depth. As Francis Bacon in John Maybury's avant-garde biopic of the painter, he is monstrously good, resisting all temptation to romanticise the role. We see him watching the carnage of the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin, giggling and spluttering uncontrollably. We see him brushing his teeth with Vim and combing boot polish through his hair with such a calm assurance, you'd believe Jacobi did it every morning of his life.

Maybury's film is loosely based on Daniel Farson's memoir of Bacon, and focuses on the years the artist spent in the company of George Dyer (played by Daniel Craig), an East End bad boy who became his lover and dependant. The relationship ended in disaster: Dyer killed himself with alcohol and pills in a Paris hotel room, while his mentor was being honoured by the French arts minister at the Grand Palais. Farson's life of Bacon is rather like Frank Harris's life of Wilde: the biographer is the only one of Bacon's hangers-on who emerges with his dignity intact. Maybury reproduces this view.

Bacon's Colony Club cronies are a hideous brood of failures. The photographer John Deakin (Karl Johnson) is a seedy social misfit, and the club matriarch, Muriel Belcher (Tilda Swinton), is a dragon with a mouthful of rotting teeth. It's only Farson (Adrian Scarborough) who doesn't have some Hogarthian problem to do with gin or orthodontics.

Maybury has an expert eye for the charnel-filled sensuality of Bacon's work, using wide angles and smudgy visual effects to achieve a near-perfect cinematic analogue for his subject's brushwork. He ensures that the paint on Bacon's palette has the colour and consistency of pureed flesh. And when Jacobi mixes his colours, the soundtrack slops and slurps as if he's rummaging around in a sackful of liver. But, if I may quote Tina Turner, what's love got do with it? Maybury's film has a chilly vacuum at its centre, and watching it is a withering, glacial experience. "Pleasure is difficult to define, and I feel horror occupies much the same territory," Bacon says in the script's most direct comment on his art and his masochistic sexuality.

Even so, Maybury provides no moment of tenderness to help you comprehend the relationship between these men. The sex scenes, for instance, are a strange mixture of viciousness and timidity: in one, Jacobi bends over the bed in a pair of baggy Y-fronts, while Craig slips his belt and wraps it around his fist. A lit cigarette inches towards Jacobi's skin. And cut. Even if Maybury had shown Craig beating seven shades of burnt sienna out of Sir Derek, I would have been more persuaded of their passionate engagement. But when things threaten to become intimate, Maybury dissolves into surrealism or social comedy, giving us more screaming popes or screaming queens. Considering that the film tells the story of how Bacon devoured Dyer, expressions of appetite and desire are oddly absent.

As I watched this film, I found myself clinging rather desperately to Jacobi's performance, hoping to see him crack, willing him to betray a hint of regret, guilt or sentiment. Rather bravely, Maybury and his star have chosen to deny their audience that easy satisfaction. Instead, they offer you something that's more difficult to appreciate than romantic tragedy: an icy portrait of a man who gulped people down like an oysters.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all