Hello, Dali — Farewell, Jean

Chris Briney and Suki Waterhouse in Daliland. Photo: courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

When the past — recent or distant — is recreated on screen, nostalgia could come into play for moviegoers who either lived through the time evoked or wished for the opportunity to experience it. Some of the wild and glamorous demimonde gatherings of the 1970s that are depicted in the bio-pic Daliland have a decided allure. But depending on the circumstances, one might just as easily be grateful to have avoided certain eras, such as the repressive late 1980s in England, where the drama Blue Jean is set.


Directed by Mary Harron, Daliland is a baroque mix of biographical fancy and period fetish that peers at the latter days of flamboyant master of surrealist art/gleeful provocateur Salvador Dali, in tandem with his wife and love of his life, Gala. The significant events in the movie, which is primarily set in 1974, include exclusive parties in Dali’s upscale New York City hotel suite, in-studio painting sessions, chic gallery openings, elegant dinners that descend into backbiting, and getaways to Spain and France — all seen through the eyes of handsome, callow James, a young man trying to break into the art world by working as an assistant to Dali’s Manhattan-based agent.

Despite the movie’s point of view being that of an outsider, Daliland is first and foremost a portrait of the artist as an iconoclast who could be . . . difficult. Dali was someone of prodigious talent with a grandiose, whimsical personality, but from considerable anecdotal evidence, he was given to near-infantile willfulness and plagued by insecurity. The actor playing the role of this mad, mustachioed marvel was crucial to making Daliland work. It’s fortunate that the movie is anchored by a sly, layered performance from the distinguished thespian Ben Kingsley as the pioneering and cheerfully strange Dali, and further enhanced by renowned German leading lady Barbara Sukowa as the controlling, money-obsessed Gala — Dali’s original muse and sometime tormentor.

Kingsley’s Oscar-winning triumph in the 1982 epic Gandhi as Mahatma Gandhi — the leader of the nonviolent movement that eventually liberated India from British colonial rule — only hinted at his range. He’s been credible as an aristocrat, an ordinary guy, a vicious gangster, a Marvel Comics villain, that barbaric barber Sweeney Todd, and more over the course of his career. Drawing upon such versatility, Kingsley renders Dali as a complex, fascinating creature. Sukowa as Gala goes nose-to-nose with Kingsley’s Dali, boosting him, berating him, shaming him, and still needing him as she has for years, even as she uses Dali’s earnings to try and buy the affection of a would-be singer-songwriter who has the lead in the Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

During the mid-1970s, Dali’s genius was being dismissed as old news by some critics, and Daliland suggests the grand innovator was pressured to produce new works that would keep the collectors buying and thus continue to finance the lush standard of living that he and Gala had enjoyed for decades. James was assigned to keep Dali on track and to serve as a buffer between him and Gala as their marriage became more fractious. The relatively unknown Christopher Briney as James has as thankless a task as the character he plays, going up against powerhouses Kingsley and Sukowa. If Briney has a hard time keeping pace with his cast mates, at least it fits the narrative. And most of the supporting players — such as Suki Waterhouse as a random party girl who catches James’s eye, Andreja Pejić as proto-supermodel Amanda Lear, and headline-grabbing TMZ favorite Ezra Miller as young Dali — bring juice to the scenes they’re in.

The idea of a naive wannabe given entry to the inner circle of a famous individual is one that has been at the heart of more than a few famous and well-loved movies. The Devil Wears Prada and My Favorite Year come to mind. Daliland takes a similar approach with more mixed results than those two classics, while continuing a thread that runs through many of Harron’s movies. American Psycho — a fictional portrait of a serial killer — might be her most renowned release as a director, and it does showcase her most controversial lead character. But her feature films I Shot Andy Warhol, The Notorious Bettie Page, and Charlie Says (as in Charles Manson) dealt with real-life oddities and outliers whose personal experiences were compelling enough to merit the cinematic spotlight. Daliland is right in line with those three Harron offerings and honors its brilliant, eccentric subject, thanks to Kingsley’s bravura embodiment of Dali.

Daliland opens in select theaters on June 9.


Although fiction in the strictest sense, the story told in writer-director Georgia Oakley’s moving drama Blue Jean rings true, especially in the face of ongoing attempts to curtail the rights of LGBTQ Americans today. It’s 1988, and Jean (Rosy McEwen) is a secondary-school gym teacher in England. She’s also a closeted lesbian. Despite having a girlfriend (Kerrie Hayes) and a group of more “out” comrades in the gay club scene, Jean fears losing her job and alienating family members, so she has kept that aspect of her life a secret. And her fears are well-founded. Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher’s Conservative government is about to crack down on gays and lesbians with a law intended to ruin anyone who dares to be homosexual.

Reacting to the institutional homophobia with righteous indignation, Jean’s girlfriend, Viv, wants to go public and demonstrate against the law. Jean is reticent. Meanwhile, Jean encounters one of her students, Lois (Lucy Halliday), at the lesbian bar. The idea that Lois might reveal Jean’s double life to school administrators further complicates matters, bringing the teacher to a crossroads. Rosy McEwen, unadorned and generally restrained on screen as befits her dilemma, manages to convey the depth of Jean’s sadness and conflict with a glance or an almost imperceptible wince. She is superb. As for Oakley’s script and direction, there’s never a false note, emotionally or contextually. The use of time-specific music, fashion, and media brings even more authenticity to Blue Jean. Cultural touchstones aside, its depiction of a community under siege and its plea for solidarity against hate are as relevant now as they were then.

Blue Jean opens in select theaters on June 9.

Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on The Mark Thompson Show, via YouTube, and on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, via, Roku, and iTunes. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster.

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