When young journalist Erik Jensen was asked by iconic Australian painter Adam Cullen to stay at his house and write his biography, he didn’t know three things: the biography had never been authorised by any publication, how dangerously erratic and abusive his subject would be, and how deep and dark this relationship would go. Based on the biography that he wrote anyway, Acute Misfortune is the sort of biopic that often unsettles and unnerves in the eerie sub-conscious ways that only Australian films can do.
These two men are clearly in stark contrast to each other: the 40-year-old Adam (Daniel Henshall) is headstrong and appears adamant about his unorthodox manner, whilst Erik (Toby Wallace) is young and impressionable, therefore easy to be manipulated in this volatile, yet elongated relationship that’s always at boiling point.
Henshall, who made such a mark on Australian film culture with a similarly terrifying performance in Snowtown, is even better and more multi-layered here in this whole new perspective on the ‘tortured artist’ archetype. This film seems to purposefully owe a direct reference to the most disturbing, harrowing and unravelling disturbance portrayed in Australian films, as it shows Adam watching and relating to the 1998 film The Boys starring David Wenham, whose award-winning portrait from Adam was his most highly regarded work.
With other Aussie films about dark true stories like Snowtown, Hounds of Love and Chopper, Australian cinema has carved its niche in the world by confronting more closely than others the tar-black darkness and compellingly haunting intrigue in its real-life characters. Acute Misfortune does act like something of an older sibling to Snowtown, not only because it features Henshall as a shifty and erratic suburban neighbour, but it presents a similar kind of problematic relationship between an impressionable young man and his older and commanding model figure.
Unlike Snowtown, Acute Misfortune doesn’t go as far into the darkest recesses of Australian suburbia (as to depicting completely amoral serial killers). It still gets distressingly close enough to that disturbing and erratic nature, yet there’s at least a slight empathetic view to this chaotically-minded man and his mental struggles.
Acute Misfortune can stand tall amongst these great films from this country, as a film about a true-life tale that doesn’t shy away from the horrific details. With such great actors on board as these two leads, and some adventurous directing to complement that, this man has been given the biopic he deserves – not to say it’s too hagiographic.