"Ashes" paints handsome but meandering portrait

Wed May 6, 2009 5:10pm EDT
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By Stephen Farber

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - It can be fun to watch well-known historical figures spinning around in a piece of fiction. An ambitious new U.K.-Spain production, "Little Ashes," scrutinizes some of the most intriguing figures in 20th century art: surrealist painter Salvador Dali (Robert Pattinson), master filmmaker Luis Bunuel (Matthew McNulty) and poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca (Javier Beltran).

Lorca is probably the least well known, but he's the central character in director Paul Morrison's romantic drama, which revolves around the friendship of the three Spanish masters, who met in Madrid in the early 1920s.

"Ashes" makes no claims to be an entirely accurate biopic; it's a speculative, impressionistic portrait without a lot of dramatic force or psychological depth. But it's an elegantly designed film that fascinates as often as it frustrates. Box-office prospects seem limited, despite the following that Pattinson has developed since mesmerizing young girls in "Twilight." That teenage audience is unlikely to turn out for a film about Spanish artistic history, and the Regent Releasing film, which opens Friday (May 8), isn't quite compelling enough to demand attention from discerning adult viewers.

Once it gets past a tedious introductory section in which new student Dali arrives at university, the film zeroes in on the intense homoerotic flirtation between Dali and Lorca. There isn't a lot of documentation about this affair, and the script by Philippa Goslett is maddeningly murky, though Pattinson and Beltran strike some sensual sparks. Although Lorca is known to have been gay, Dali's sexuality is more ambiguous (he was married for decades), and the film implies that he essentially was asexual, thus able to serve as a magnet for men and women. The film also hints that Bunuel, jealous of the friendship between Dali and Lorca, might have been something of a closet case himself. As he hurls homophobic slurs at his classmates, he seems to be wrestling with demons of his own, which never are made entirely clear.

Anyone who looks to the film for a lucid analysis of these three seminal artists will be disappointed. Yet the film is often enjoyable to watch, partly because it is so beautifully shot by cinematographer Adam Suschitzky, who takes advantage of the rich settings, including Dali's home in the seaside town of Cadaques and Lorca's in the pastoral environs of Andalusia.

Pattinson captures the initial shyness and growing flamboyance of Dali, and Beltran makes a handsome foil. Although the female characters aren't as well drawn, Marina Gatell as a writer in love with Lorca and Arly Jover as Dali's brazen wife, Gala, bring the right sassiness to their roles. All of the technical credits are outstanding; it's the diffuse script that disappoints.

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<p>A woman stands beside a sculpture created by Salvador Dali in the Dali Museum in Berlin in this file photo from February 3, 2009. REUTERS/Johannes Eisele</p>