So often do creativity and sexuality go hand-in-hand. Burgeoning in a carefree post-World War II period, there are many North American artists who flourished in this era, including fiercely controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. His homoerotic portraiture was well ahead of the United States’ taste at the time (possibly even to this day). But can his don’t-give-a-fuck attitude accurately translate in the new biopic ‘Mapplethorpe’?
Robert (Matt Smith, TV’s ‘Doctor Who’) is living in Brooklyn in the late 60s as he grows and refines his style of art. While initially working primarily with sketches, he falls in love with photography when gifted a Polaroid camera. Taking photos of everything and everyone he could, his black and white style becomes distinctive for its rich blacks and striking, vivid lighting. Robert also begins exploring his sexuality, most notably with collector Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey, ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’, ‘Flags of our Fathers’). As Robert’s notoriety (and controversy, as he starts photographing New York’s BDSM scene) begins to rise, his health would eventually fail due to the AIDS epidemic that would inevitably sweep through the gay community.
This could have been yet another biopic if not for the dedication of Matt Smith. It’s a revealing and raw performance as he locks on to Robert’s abrasive, impatient, imperfect nature. It is, at first, a little odd watching the British actor performing with a Brooklyn accent, but that falls to the wayside as the character shines through. Smith throws everything into this role, and it makes Robert believable.
Kudos is also owed to producer/co-writer/director Ondi Timoner (‘Dig!’, ‘We Live in Public’) and cinematographer Nancy Schreiber for the authenticity of the era. Drawing from Mapplethorpe’s styles, there’s black and white vignettes scattered throughout, complimented by a wonderfully filmic aesthetic - dramatic lighting, muted colours, and a grainy, handheld appearance which gives the illusion that the film was shot on 16mm film.
Despite its risqué content (there’s more close-up nudity than you can poke a whip at), the script is the downfall in this affair. As so often happens with biopics, Timoner along with co-writer Mikko Alanne attempt to wedge a twenty-year snapshot of Mapplethorpe’s life into 100 minutes of movie. The outcome is far too episodic, particularly towards the later years, as we breeze through relationships, artistic triumphs and family dramas. Everyone besides Robert comes through the story as if through a revolving door, barely present long enough to make any real impact - even Sam Wagstaff, who became a lifelong friend to Robert even after their relationship fell apart. The superficiality of the screenplay invariably means the characters lack any real depth or importance in Robert’s life.
Matt Smith presents a revealing and raw performance as he locks on to Robert’s abrasive, impatient, imperfect nature.
Robert Mapplethorpe was an artist who pushed the accepted limits with his works - not only for working in the medium of photography a time when it was still barely considered an art form, but by placing the human body - particularly the male form - front and centre in his work. Even after his death, his work still drew controversy throughout the United States. While ‘Mapplethorpe’ showcases many of his famous photos, it doesn’t explain why he was so inspired by it. That’s a pity, because the work of Matt Smith and the film’s well-developed style deserve a much better vehicle than the screenplay they’re paired with. If only it had pushed the boundaries as much as Mapplethorpe’s own work.