Dir: Giuseppe Capotondi. Cast: Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Donald Sutherland, Mick Jagger. 15 Cert, 98 mins.
The Burnt Orange Heresy has a rather enticing brief – it’s a thriller about art fraud, with an intriguing cast, not least a delicious Mick Jagger cameo, and some hard-boiled credentials. It comes from a 1971 novel by Charles Willeford, best-known for his detective noir Miami Blues, which was crackingly filmed with Alec Baldwin in 1990. Screenwriter Scott B Smith, meanwhile, is the author of A Simple Plan, which he adapted himself for Sam Raimi in 1998.
If this film only winds up passing the time, it’s down to the rather listless plot Smith has been given to work with. It’s soft-boiled. For a good hour the film’s all chatter and no trousers – a four-hander you can imagine on stage, in the spirit of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation or Yasmina Reza’s Art. It’s lively talk, with attractive performances, but you can’t help wondering when the thriller end of the bargain is meant to kick in.
Claes (Dracula) Bang, in a variation on his breakout role in The Square, plays James Figueras, a published art expert in Milan with a suavely disreputable air. He lectures to rich Americans on the power of the critic, showing them the dangers of a sham appraisal by hoodwinking them with just that.
One interested listener is Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki), a Minnesotan idling around Italy who lingers after his class. Quickly she’s lingering in and out of his bed, and that weekend accompanies him to a luxurious Lake Como estate, where he’s been summoned by a beady-eyed collector called Joseph Cassidy (Jagger).
For 50 years, this dandyish host has been the only one who knows the whereabouts of Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), a legendary painter whose entire works have had a pesky habit of going up in smoke. Cassidy entices Figueras with the prospect of a one-off Debney interview, revealing that the artist is not just alive and well, but operating out of a studio on his very estate.
It’s a pity that Jagger’s Cassidy then leaves them all to it, because his character is the best value of this quartet, all insinuating smirks and lizardy hospitality. His palazzo is a neoclassical swank dream with a Rothko sitting casually in a corner, as Figueras is quick to point out to his new girlfriend.
We know this self-styled critic is on the make – and that Cassidy has some craven ulterior motives of his own. Even so, it’s a fault of Smith’s script that Figueras doesn’t talk a better talk or drop better names, beyond a stray mention of Anselm Kiefer. He seems so basic and commercially driven. How has this obvious fraud managed to fake his way to a sizeable reputation in the art world? And why does Berenice, who seems like she can look after herself, hang on his every word?
Bang is more believable as a sociopath, when Figueras’s desperately ambitious nature shows up, to no one’s real surprise. In a couple of violent developments, we get hot flashes of Patricia Highsmith – especially Ripley’s Game, Highsmith’s own thriller about art theft on the continent, with its famously slippery narcissist of a hero.
Sutherland enjoys himself as a twinkling recluse who drives a hard bargain, and Debicki radiates typical self-assurance, even if she’s typecast yet again as the lounging plaything of unscrupulous men on boats. But the clash of accents – she’s Minnesotan, Debney’s from the South, and Bang speaks in his naturally eccentric Danish tones – yields some oddly garbled scenes. Perhaps director Giuseppe Capotondi, in his English-language debut, wasn’t the man to fine-tune this ensemble and listen out for harmony.
Starting with the high-end locations, surface pleasures keep pulling focus. As usual, Debicki appears in plenty of delightful clothes, and Bang cuts a hirsutely impressive figure wearing none. A couple of twists, even if they’re only half-coherent, end things on a light prosecco high. You don’t realise how much you’ve missed Jagger until he bounds back in for a hilariously oily scene at a private view, dripping with cheery threats and off-the-cuff mischief. The film’s a droll enough dawdle, but he’s cock of the walk.
The Burnt Orange Heresy is in cinemas on Friday