‘Daliland’ Toronto Review: Ben Kingsley Nails The Salvador Dali Impression But The TIFF Closer Just Isn’t That Artful

As the Toronto International Film Festival comes to its official Closing Night we say goodbye to the re-energized fest for another year, but not before we say ‘hello Dali’ or actually the final World Premiere of the festival, Daliland  which picks up the celebrated artists’ life in its later years focusing on the odd relationship between his and his controlling wife. If only this film stuck to that idea and didn’t take a detour into a misbegotten coming of age plotline about the young assistant both Dalis take a shine to in their own way.

So it is all set in the mid-70’s at the St. Regis Hotel in New York where 70 year old master Dali (Sir Ben Kingsley doing his best impression)  and his wife of 50 years, muse, business partner, the very protective and controlling Gala Dali ( a terrific, as always, Barbara Sukowa) stay for a few months out of the year, setting up shop as it were. Into this world comes James (newcomer Christopher Briney) who serves as a young assistant to Dali who definitely wants the kid around and begins to mentor him. Gala also likes him, but he is there as there is also much friction in their marriage, as well as romantic temptations for her with a younger man. Although he is thrilled to be now in the inner circle of a true legend and hoping to learn the art business as it were, James also sees a darker side , not only of that world, but also the insecurity within this icon who has seen better days in the spotlight but now seems, under the surface, not who he once was.  Nevertheless Dali and Gala put on a good show as they prepare to indeed put on a new show. Surrounded by his own social circle, it always seems party time for Dali, a bit decadent and even Warhol-ish, not a surprise since the film’s director Mary Harron is very familiar with that era having directed I Shot Andy Warhol. She also knows how to walk on the dark side, having also made American Psycho with that chilling performance from a younger Christian Bale.

The world James witnesses includes the usual quoto of overly made up models. rockers, society wannabes from both ends of the spectrum, pretenders, and those who know the deal.  It is  the glam rock era in New York City, with all that suggests, as Harron clearly has a good time recreating the decadence, the partiers, and a world that is insulated unto itself for those who want to indulge. We have seen it portrayed many times in movies and it feels a bit stale here. Harron contrasts it all with flashbacks that take us to Spain and the early days of Dali (played in his younger years by Ezra Miller) and Gala. Taking place in his favored Cadaques, we see many of visual inspirations that would define his art. These brief scenes mix with the current day of the 70’s  as Dali and Gala go at each other in fierce ways, but still are joined at the hip even if they don’t quite realize it.

Kingsley can really do no wrong as an actor, no matter if the material lets him down or not. He puts his all impressively into the role, and yes at times it feels like an impression but still he captures the man behind the mustachioed facade that appears in many scenes here.  Sukowa, the great German star, can really also do no wrong and she actually comes off best with a powerhouse turn that captures Gala with all her contradictions. The real problem is Briney who simply cannot grasp any complexity of a young man thrust into this kind of situation. In other words his James comes off as bland, and he plays it that way. I kept thinking as a comparison My Favorite Year  which had a wide eyed young man meeting a true legend and trying to navigate that world.  This just can’t measure up for instance to what Mark Linn Baker did in dealing with the outsized iconic actor Peter O’Toole played in that movie, and Daliland could have used more of that kind of pizazz to make it sizzle.

The problem for Harron and her screenwriter John C. Walsh is that too much screen time has been given to James who simply isn’t nearly as interesting as just about anyone else in the film, most particularly Dali and Gala. The balance is off.  The rest of the cast gives it the old college try and that includes the always reliable Rupert Graves as Dali’s right hand man Captain Moore who wallowed in the shadier aspects of the art world and the “Salvador Dali Business” , an interesting sidelight here that reveals some underhanded aspects of this world. There is also Andreja Pejic as Amanda Lear who was a great inspiration to Dali;  Model/Actress Suki Waterhouse who gives some authenticity to Ginesta; and a brief amusing go at Alice Cooper as filtered nicely through Mark McKenna. The controversial Miller as the young Dali does a nice impression here too in his ever too brief moments on screen.

Props to costume designer Hannah Edwards , and the colorful soundtrack too. Producers are Edward Pressman, David O. Sacks, Daniel Brunt, Chris Curling, Sam Pressman.

CAA is the U.S. sales agent.

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