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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones