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.

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