‘A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things’ Review: A Great British Artist’s Legacy Is Thawed and Reexamined

Not for the first time in his filmmaking career, Northern Irish documentarian Mark Cousins begins his latest work by presenting the audience with a banal image, and persuasively talking us into a reconsideration. The picture is an unremarkable vacation snapshot of British artist Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in her seventies or eighties, dressed for a day’s sightseeing in a sensible raincoat, not projecting any particular halo of artistic genius. Cousins’ quizzical narration ponders her pose, her clothes, her comfortably ordinary aura, and wonders how easy these details make her — in a realm geared against even palpably extraordinary women — to overlook. A winningly discursive, often lyrical valentine to Barns-Graham and her oeuvre, “A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things” aims to draw eyes toward her angular modernist interpretations of nature at its most serene and severe, and train them to see the subversive soul expressed therein.

Premiering in the main competition at the Karlovy Vary festival, where it won the top prize from Christine Vachon’s jury, this is among the more broadly appealing feature docs to date from the prolific Cousins — bringing the same energized enthusiasm and artist-to-artist empathy that characterizes his cinema-focused work (notably his “Story of Film” series) to a fine-arts subject who isn’t exactly a household name. Even that relative obscurity works in Cousins’ favor, however: “A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things” joins a recent wave of documentary and dramatic films centered on female artists formerly neglected in popular culture (among them “Beyond the Visible: Hilma af Klint,” “Kusama: Infinity” and “Maudie”) in a collective effort to amend and expand a patriarchal canon. The film’s Karlovy Vary triumph should yield plenty of further festival bookings and specialist multi-platform distribution.

More from Variety

Anyone familiar with Cousins’ idiosyncratic films will know not to expect a standard-issue biodoc of talking heads and archival montage. With a vocal assist from regular Cousins collaborator Tilda Swinton, mellifluously reading various first-person passages from Barns-Graham’s letters and diaries, the film outlines the artist’s life story without abundant biographical detail. We learn that she was born in St. Andrews, Scotland, to landed gentry; that she studied at the Edinburgh College of Art; that she later settled in Cornwall, where she found both scenic inspiration and a modernist artistic community; that she married once, unsuccessfully.

But Cousins is less interested in this kind of narrative than in more abstract, occasionally speculative reflection on her aesthetic and spiritual fixations — pivoting on a formative 1949 hike to the Grindelwald Glacier in Switzerland. There, she was mesmerized by natural geometries of rock and ice, forms and motifs that would then circle through her work over the next half-century. Such patterns and throughlines in her drawings and paintings are made plain through the simplest of techniques: unfussy, mostly chronological slideshow montages, free from narration, accentuated only by Linda Buckley’s lovely, pensive string score, permitting viewers to digest and silently respond to Barns-Graham’s art as they would in a gallery. Cousins does take the liberty, however, of talking us through her early notebooks: page upon page of intricately color-coded, mathematically conceived compositions that reveal something of Barns-Graham’s synesthesia, a crucial factor in her art that was both loosened and complicated by her increasing fascination with the natural world.

As usual, Cousins is a critical figure in his own work, with the film built around his growing individual acquaintance with, and affinity for, Barns-Graham’s story. This builds to his own spearheading of a multi-screen installation devoted to her work in Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket exhibition space, which again underlines Cousins’ sense of the permeable bond between visual art and cinema. (“I wonder what David Lynch would make of this?” he says, gazing upon one of her most darkly deconstructed glacier paintings.) Some art historians may debate Cousins’ claims of how sidelined Barns-Graham has been in the popular view of 20th-century British art — she is exhibited in the Tate, though was left out of a blockbuster Royal Academy exhibition dedicated to her contemporaries — but his film amounts to a compelling rehanging of her oeuvre either way.

A degree of self-indulgence is par for the course — as in an interlude where the filmmaker gets a tattoo of a Barns-Graham painting, musing aloud as to how much closer this does or doesn’t bring him to her — but not exactly inappropriate. “A Sudden Glimpse to Deeper Things” affectingly articulates how we can form highly personal relationships with artworks by people we’ve never known, celebrated or otherwise. This gives the film license for any number of unexpected angles — including one thoughtful tangent, that could even have stood greater expansion, on climate change, and the physical disappearance of landscapes that once inspired such abstract beauty. At one point, Cousins asks a biographer of Barns-Graham (who died, aged 91, in 2004) if she would have welcomed a film about herself, only to be told the artist would probably have wanted more of a say in its contents. No artist can control their legacy, and so Cousins in turn invites us to read his moving, infectiously obsessive film as we will.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.