Written by: Scott Smith
Starring: Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger, Donald Sutherland
No matter the profession, egos and competition play a major part and not many others may be more toxic than the art world. At the highest level, it becomes more about ownership rather than what the art represents and impacts others, which is where we find the characters in The Burnt Orange Heresy. A film that thinks it’s much more clever than the final product proves to be.
Making a living as an art critic and strong deceiver, James (Claes Bang) meets Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki) where they begin a steamy relationship. When he gets invited over by a rich art collector (Mick Jagger), James invites her along where he gets blackmailed into stealing the last painting of famous artist Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland).
Interpreting art seen on a canvas allows for different interpretations of what is seen, which James has made sure to capitalize on for much of his career. As a critic, he knows how to describe pieces, but knows how to manipulate everyone into believing his thoughts. In a sense, a critic’s job serves to describe, interpret, and covertly influence opinion depending on the individual. James certainly takes this approach, and as a whole, The Burnt Orange Heresy attempts to have the same time of manipulation on its audience, but it fails because it’s just not very clever. In its attempts to try and create a world of deception where no one can be fully trusted, it actually created a story where the turns can be telegraphed fairly easily and the end result does not bring much satisfaction.
For parts of the film, it appears to be about an art heist, where James will have his career ruined if he does not steal the last art piece by Jerome Debney and essentially eliminate all of the others. While this adds intrigue, it also allows for an observation of how much exclusivity matters in the art collecting world. It would be one thing for the collector, Joseph, to have one of Debney’s latest works, but the value of it would grow exponentially if it were the last thing the artist ever made. Presumably, it helps explain why a Van Gogh painting would go for more than most contemporary artworks where the creator still lives. Limited supply increases demand, which allows for those who own the rare product to enjoy all of the elevation in value. It’s a whole business model in certain industries and certainly gets exposed in the actions of Joseph and what he demands James to accomplish.
The high points in this film arrive in the conversations about art as a whole, especially when James and Jerome Debney have their discussions. It serves as an opportunity for an artist and a critic to discuss their passion and how they coincide with their professions. They obviously have different viewpoints and they get expressed in a way that further shows the true character of these two individuals. Additionally, it gets into the art of criticism, which surely gets at the heart of why I write these reviews as well.
As the film gets shiftier, it continues the downward spiral of James’s integrity as only he and the audience know of the task he must complete. He needs to deceive both Jerome Debney and Berenice for self-preservation and the lengths he must go to get more and more depraved, especially whenever he’s on the verge of being caught. This work in deception comes with the intention of adding tension, but the film really failed in properly utilizing this tension in any real effective manner. Yes, the stakes were properly communicated but it never amounted to anything causing stress.
The real reason to watch The Burnt Orange Heresy is for Elizabeth Debicki as she continues her ascent into greatness. Portraying Berenice allows her to have some anonymity in the role, as she remains fairly secretive for most of the film. She does not get much else to do in the film, unfortunately, but she makes the most of what she’s given and displays why she’s such an alluring presence in the feature. Whenever she’s not present it can be felt, which certainly makes the case for good work as a supporting character.
For its entertainment value, The Burnt Orange Heresy provides some small thrills to enjoy but ultimately it fails in delivering the tension the circumstance set up. The pieces were certainly set but the execution fell short. One to see if you want to watch more Elizabeth Debicki and some minor scenes with Mick Jagger as the blackmailing art collector. However, the story will not leave much of an impression other than a few insightful conversations about art conceptually and in practice.