March 6, 2020
For much of "The Burnt Orange Heresy," instead of asking questions such as, "Why is he sneaking around in there?"; "What exactly is she hiding about her past?"; "Is ‘Berenice' even her real name?"; or "Who will prevail in this battle of wills?"— typical questions one might ask during any meaningful thriller—we find ourselves asking, "Why do I care about what's happening?" This is a movie that takes a while to get going and to establish itself as something worthy of our time. It eventually gets there, and while we do come to appreciate it, it's more as a guilty pleasure than a credible thriller.
What the title means I'll not reveal, but stick with the plot, because the answer arrives as one of those "aha"-type moments and it's a neat payoff. Other aspects of the movie have value, too, even though they may not be readily apparent. For instance, director Giuseppe Capotondi, who's helmed other thrillers such as "The Double Hour," along with director of photography David Ungaro and production designer Totoi Santoro, show a particular strength for utilizing romantic locations and generating an ominous, chilling atmosphere, which becomes one of the movie's defining features.
The story is less inspiring. It begins in a modest apartment in Milan, Italy, where a pompous, pedantic art critic named James Figueras (Claes Bang) rehearses a spiel he's clearly delivered several times to impressionable tourists looking to purchase fine art. James is also an author and he's in Milan to promote his latest book, which makes a case for why art critics are an essential player in the art world. However, James many not actually believe this anymore, because despite his outward charm and confidence, deep down he's a wounded man, sad and angry that as an aspiring art student many years ago one of his professors told him he was better at talking about art than creating it.
This is something James doesn't like to admit, but a blonde, blue-eyed American vacationer named Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki) picks up on it, probably because she knows what it's like to carry inner shame and regret. Shortly after she wanders into his lecture, the flirtations begin and James and Berenice strike up an exotic affair. Soon after, he invites her on a weekend trip and what could be a profitable gig.
The trip is to Lake Como and James has been summoned there by Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger, weathered yet still noticeably suave and lean), an affluent art collector and braggart who tells James that for years he's been setting an extra place setting at his lunch table in hopes he'd one day be joined by his eremitic neighbor. This would be Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), a legendary but now reclusive artist whose work Cassidy has long coveted, not least because Debney's pieces have a reputation for perishing in mysteriously started fires, so you can imagine the appraisal of his most recent project, especially if it ended up being the octogenarian's last.
Cassidy essentially commissions James to acquire Debney's latest painting. In exchange, James would be given full access to Cassidy's estate—servants, pool, etc.—and the opportunity to interview Debney, which could reestablish James as a respectable critic and major figure in the art community who would no longer have to give lectures to simple-minded tourists just to make ends meet.
It all seems like a fair and legitimate deal, but the movie wouldn't be much fun if everything went according to plan. The story takes a dark turn when James gets greedy and bites off more than he can chew. After Debney emerges from his isolated studio and exchanges wits with James, he agrees to an interview, but solely on his terms. Later, as Debney charms Berenice on a romantic boat ride, at which point she finally reveals her own tumultuous past, James sets in motion a diabolical scheme that quickly spirals out of control. It's at this point "The Burnt Orange Heresy" gains traction as a traditional yet entertaining thriller, and what it lacks in credibility it compensates with slickness and page-turner components like obsession, arson, murder, and the question of just how much each character knows about the others.
Just to be clear, "The Burnt Orange Heresy" is initially hard to connect to, and not because it's complicated, but because its characters and setup don't exactly engage us. Until the second half or so, when the typical genre elements kick in, James, Berenice, Cassidy and Debney come across as caricatures instead of real people, even though each actor is attractive and convincing in his and her own way. Our distance from both them and the material might have sealed the movie's downfall, but luckily the scenic Milano cityscape, the aged palazzos along Lake Como, and the cold, echoing interiors of Cassidy's estate give our eyes and ears enough pleasure that our attention holds. The film certainly has a distinct visual and aural style throughout but Scott B. Smith's screenplay, adapted from Charles Willeford's novel of the same name, takes too long to add substance.
Our preference, of course, would have been for all aspects of the film—story and production values—to gel from the very beginning, but they don't, and so we just accept "The Burnt Orange Heresy" as a fair thriller that's ultimately satisfying but mostly forgettable. However, one aspect of it that does resonate is the final scene, which is slow, quiet and poignant, and it's a testament to Capotondi's potential as a storyteller who can prioritize character and emotion while simultaneously harnessing his technical resources. Perhaps "The Burnt Orange Heresy" will one day be viewed as one of his lesser achievements that still served as a small step toward greatness.
0.5 of 5 stars
Despite the likes of Sutherland, Debicki and Jagger 'The Burnt Orange Heresy' is strange, dull and extremely disappointing that lacks either the tension or the fitting protagonist to break even.
4 of 5 stars
Superb story. Superb acting. Gripping.
3 of 5 stars
There's nothing worse than a film that has all the elements to be amazing but has s director who can't put them together in the right way. I loved that the local was changed from the book to a cool apartment in Milan and a gorgeous villa on Lake Como which is visually stunning. Claes Bang is magnetic and really carries the film. This wasn't Elizabeth Debicki's best work but I think that's due to the writing. Same with Donald Sutherland. Mick Jagger wasn't terrible but should have dialed down his performance and smiling a few notches. While I don't love that new movies are getting longer, this one could have used some extra time to add depth and a better ending. I wish I could have watched it on demand instead of going to the theater.
5 of 5 stars
Great script. Cool film noir feel. Love the actors.
3.5 of 5 stars
I found this to be an interesting story with an excellent cast. A good mystery. But somethings did not make sense, like some parts of the story were missing.