Frida, Odeon Leicester Square London

Hayek's portrait of the artist captures an icon made for the cinema

By Roger Clarke
Friday 14 February 2003 01:00

You have to be pretty sure of yourself to fend off rival divas as powerful and determined as Jennifer Lopez and Madonna, but that's exactly what Salma Hayek did when she persuaded Miramax to pick up her Frida Kahlo project.

For a woman who spent most of her short life in bed and who died in 1954, the Mexican painter still provokes extraordinary passions: her 200 or so paintings – every single one some form of bold self-portrait – are prized by wealthy collectors in the US. Madonna is an aggressive buyer. It's not clear how many she owns but Self Portrait with a Monkey was lent to the Tate some years ago.

I think we can all be thankful that Madonna and Jenny from the Block did not take on the Kahlo role, although it has to be said that Salma Hayek's acting is rather more enthusiastic than good, and she has benefited greatly from hiring Julie Taymor as the director.

The opening sequence – Kahlocarried on her bed to her first one-woman show before she dies – sets the tone and the episode of her near-fatal tram car crash seals it. As Kahlo is retrieved from this freakish accident, Taymor devises a brilliant dream sequence, using images from Mexican folklore. It's worthy of Svankmajer.

After this she learns to paint and catches the eye of the much older artist Diego Rivera, played bearishly macho by Alfred Molina. However the best sequences come with the arrival of Leon Trotsky, played by Geoffrey Rush. Hayek seems to respond to Rush and the quality of her acting lifts a level.

Artist biopics are always an uneasy combination of personal melodrama and a romantic idea of genius. Kahlo's life melodrama however does touch on some genuine moments of history and her iconic face appears suited for cinema.

Hayek's obsessive quest to bring her to the screen is bright and fleeting as a cactus flower, with all the sour aspects of Kahlo's personality excised. As for the news that Hayek got bitten by the pet capuchin, it's impossible to imagine Madge not having a good old laugh over her Kahlo monkey painting.

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