‘Mapplethorpe’ Lacks Guts, but Matt Smith is Captivating

Courtesy of Signature Entertainment

The legendary Robert Mapplethorpe shot pictures in striking high-contrast black and white that transcended his subjects to otherworldly shapes and beings. Unfortunately, his long-deserved biopic feels timid and vanilla in comparison. 

Robert photographed until he passed from AIDS in 1989. His work both treaded the fine line between art and pornography and completely obliterated it. In Mapplethorpe, we watch as the rebellious Catholic teen, lives through the romanticised glory days of Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel with his then-lover Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón). The feature displays this with a hazy dream-like feel, adopting a muted palette and grainy 16mm film aesthetic. It always feels too pretty, too clean – when in reality the pair lived in delicious sin and the life of a Chelsea Hotel struggling artist was anything but clean. (Turn to Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids for a fantastic vision.)

However forced and tedious the nostalgia might feel, Matt Smith commands your attention every second. The British actor of Doctor Who fame leaps ahead of the script he is offered, trying as hard as he can to show the tortured-artist eyes behind his head of unkempt curls. You can feel through the screen that he’s desperate to do more in the role, especially as he becomes slowly more and more dislikeable a character. Director Ondi Timoner has shown the controversial icon as a man who uses everyone, treating his lovers and younger brother awfully, but refuses to ask questions or dig into why.

What Mapplethorpe lacks is any introspection, there is no exploration of the cracks between the milestones that make a life, well, a life. Sadly, it feels like a passive slide-show of a Wikipedia entry, albeit a beautiful one.

Mapplethorpe is available now on Digital.

by Millicent Thomas

Millicent Thomas is a proud Mancunian studying Film & Publishing in Bath. She has written freelance for Little White Lies, Much Ado About Cinema, Reel Honey, and more. Her favourite films include Logan, Columbus, and Spy-Kids. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Letterboxd at @millicentonfilm

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