The only truly memorable thing about seeing The Burnt Orange Heresy was my timing: I caught this film, in a theater, less than a week before the Great Coronavirus Shutdown. There was already tension in the air in Los Angeles, and few people were venturing out to the movies. In fact there may have only been one other person at my matinee – not that this wouldn't have been the case during ordinary circumstances, as The Burnt Orange Heresy is not the kind of film anyone would want to rush out to see.
Forced, like most folks, to stay at home for an indeterminate period, I felt little enthusiasm, and certainly no urgency, to write this review. Yet, finally, almost three weeks on, here it is.
Why did I choose to see The Burnt Orange Heresy in the first place, when I could have caught a more noteworthy picture like Pixar's Onward or Benh Zeitlin's long-awaited Wendy? Well, mainly because, like everybody else, I didn't foresee cinemas shuttering within the week. But also because the trailer had promoted the film as an art world thriller, which seemed intriguing enough, and also because the film has Mick Jagger in a key supporting role. Jagger only acts once in a full moon – in fact this is only his sixth feature film as a proper thespian – so the curiosity factor lured me in.
The plot concerns an unethical art critic (Danish star Claes Bang, cornering the market on films about art) who is roped into a scheme in which an obscenely wealthy collector (Jagger) wants to get his hands on a painting – any painting – by a legendary artist (Donald Sutherland). Quizzically, said artist happens to be living on the collector's vast Italian estate, yet won't show anyone what he's working on. To add to the mystique, literally every single previous painting by this artist has been destroyed in various conflagrations. To own his work would be to own something truly one of a kind – something priceless. And so an arranged interview between critic and painter is really just a front for a kind of heist.
The Burnt Orange Heresy – also the title of one of the painter's works – is based on a 1971 novel by hardboiled crime writer Charles Willeford. As such, Scott B. Smith's screenplay adaptation is distractingly novelistic in its florid dialogue, which I assume is lifted from the book. And if, while reading my previous paragraph, you sensed that the film's plot is awfully farfetched, you're right. It's absurd, frankly – rife with plot holes and "Why doesn't he just..."s. Moreover, Bang's character is poorly developed: we don't know if he is a Tom Ripley-like sociopath or just a desperate hustler. Maybe that's the film's point, but neither Capotondi nor Bang convinced me of anything besides uncertainty.
I should mention the fourth character in this chamber piece, played by Elizabeth Debicki, but while Debicki brings bite to her role, she is essentially just "the girl" – more plot device than person, a likely byproduct of Willeford's dated tough-guy storytelling. The film looks slick, but Capotondi's direction has no particular panache. Honestly, Jagger's smooth talker, reminiscent of Richard Branson, is the highlight of the film.
It's a shame that this flawed thriller should be the swan song to my 2020 moviegoing – at least for the next few months – but here's hoping for better times and better films in the future.