I have a new theory. If you want to become really famous, you need to make a period movie where you’re a bit gay for a while but then decide that you’re actually straight, and if you’re playing some kind of artist, all the better. It’s worked for Hugh Grant with Maurice, Leonardo DiCaprio with Total Eclipse and now Robert Pattinson with Little Ashes. I’m not quite sure how the mechanism works exactly, especially as both Little Ashes and Total Eclipse were made before but released after the star’s breakout hit, but there definitely seems to be something going on.
There’s little doubt that most of the interest in Little Ashes has surrounded Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson and indeed much of the promotional material has made it look like the movie is all about him playing a young version of Savaldor Dali. However in actuality the focus is more on the poet Federico Garcia Lorca and his friendship with emerging surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel and painter Dali. The three men would later become amongst the most important artists of the 20th Century in their particular disciplines, but in the early 1920s they were just friends at theResidencia de estudiantes in Madrid, finding their feet as human beings.
The movie gives slightly short shrift to Bunuel, which is a bit of a shame as he’s a fascinating character in his own right, instead looking at the relationship between Dali and Lorca. Although there’s been speculation they had a sexual relationship, the actual ins and outs of what happened (if you’ll excuse the pun) aren’t really known. As a result the film is informed speculation, presenting Lorca as being more accepting of his sexual attraction to men, while Dali knows he’s attracted to the poet, but is more reticent. What follows is a slow dance as their relationship becomes more passionate even while it remains unconsummated, before they drift apart and things reach a tragic conclusion.
It’s an interesting film, if a slightly confused one. The screenplay throws all sorts of ideas into the mix, but rarely brings any of them to the boil. There’s sex, religion, the rise of fascism (which would, of course, gives rise to the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s), and the role of art and the artist, but little of it goes anywhere. I think the problem is that the film assumes you know what happens after the credits role. There’s a presumption that you already understand the politics of Spanish Civil War, as well as the careers and personalities of Bunuel and Dali in their artist phase, with the film filling in the details of what (might have) happened beforehand.
The acting is pretty good though. Some will rail against Pattinson’s portrayal of Dali, which leaps between the quiet and the maniacal, but the actor has an almost impossible task in making the artist seem real, largely because Dali spent so much of his time making himself somewhat unreal.
Dali was a man who deliberately cultivated an over the top impression of himself, where it became impossible to tell whether he believed what he was saying or if it was just him creating his own legend. For example in the film he spends much of his time talking about his and others’ genius, which initially seems like youthful arrogance, but even when he published his autobiography in his 60s, Dali titled it ‘Diary Of A Genius’. Likewise the odd mannerisms, impulsive movements and even the changing accents – all of which are based on the real Dali – mean that Pattinson has the almost impossible task of making someone seem human who became less and less ‘real’ as he disappeared into his own myth (as well as taking up some exceedingly dodgy political views). There’s little doubt that Pattinson’s portrayal sometimes dips into caricature, but most of the time he’s pretty effective.
Acting honours have to go to Javier Beltran as Lorca. He gives a beautifully understated performance as a poet finding his voice, playing the quiet, passionate heart around which the film revolves. But while the acting is good, as a whole Little Ashes needed a tighter vision. It’s frustrating as the film has an interesting story to tell and there are some wonderful moments, but it’s let down by the fact no one seems to know what to do with all of these ingredients. That, coupled with some rather amateurish moments, tend to undermine a lot of what the film attempts to do.
The DVD includes a few special features, but nothing particularly memorably. There’s a selection of cast and crew interviews, as well as some behind-the-scenes footage, and Javier Beltran and Marina Gatell’s audition. None of it’s particularly enlightening, which is a shame.
You’re left with a movie that’s a bizarre mix of nearly being superb, while simultaneously seeming slightly amateurish. It’s full of great ideas, but few of them are taken to their conclusion. It’s an intriguing story about fascinating artists, but the fact that it’s largely based on speculation means it’s difficult to trust is as a biopic. However when it narrows its focus onto Dali and Lorca as two men finding themselves in art, life and sexuality, as well as discovering how those things interact, Little Ashes works extremely well, it’s just the things that surround this don’t really work.
Overall Verdict: A movie that’s almost excellent but it’s let down by not being able to achieve its ambitions.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac
(This review previously featured on MovieMuser.co.uk)