When Audrey Amiss died ten years ago, her artistic talent was essentially unknown. Years spent in psychiatric hospitals meant most of her prolific output remained hidden and, on the few occasions when it saw the light of day, she was characteristically vocal about the art scene and her lack of recognition. Her work was re-discovered after her death and is currently in an archive at the Wellcome Collection in London. It was there that director Carol Morley not only discovered her sketches, scrapbooks and diaries, but also the passport that gives her film about the artist its title.
Typist, Artist, Pirate King was how Amiss described her occupation in that passport. After studying at the Royal Academy and a spell in hospital, she trained as a shorthand typist, while still creating art from her day-to-date life. Pirate king? It reflects Audrey’s grip on reality although, as we accompany her on an imagined road trip from London to Sunderland, it soon becomes clear there is a certain logic, albeit unconventional, about the way she views the world. For Audrey (Monica Dolan), local means Sunderland, the place where she was born: the fact that she actually lives in Clapham is neither here nor there. She heads north, driven by her softly spoken nurse Sandra (Kelly Macdonald) in response to a newspaper ad, asking for artists to contribute work to an exhibition. Inevitably, this is more than just a road trip, more of a journey that helps both of them understand themselves and each other.
While the film acknowledges a small debt to Thelma And Louise – they even pick up a young, male hitchhiker en route – the focus is very much on Audrey, her chaotic life in a flat crammed with all her artwork and her sometimes tenuous understanding of the real world. It’s one that makes sense to her and, surprisingly, to the audience as well, giving the film a compassionate warmth and more than a little humour. And her art is captivating on all kinds of levels: with its colours and startling line drawings of the human form, it becomes an essential part of the narrative, if not a commentary in its own right. Nonetheless, she describes herself to Sandra as “avant-garde and misunderstood”, words that she actually used in a letter to her estranged sister, Dorothy (Gina McKee).
Morley’s choice of the frequently underrated Dolan as Amiss is a masterstroke. She’s the film’s heart and soul, delivering the performance of a lifetime, uninhibited and childlike one moment, unpredictable and sometimes violent the next. But there are moments of pure joy when her illness seems to bless her with more freedom than those of us who’ve not had her experiences. Often cast in supporting parts, a leading role which gives her the chance to showcase the extent of her talent has been long overdue in her film career, but this more than does the job. However, it’s almost too easy to overlook Kelly Macdonald’s contribution to the film as well: hers is a gentle, subtle performance, a perfect balance to Dolan’s colour and energy.
There’s the sense that what we see in the film of Audrey’s artistic output is just the tip of the iceberg but, given its variety and vigour, and her own extraordinary story, Morley’s film could be just the start. In some ways, it’s an exhibition in its own right, but perhaps it’s time that her work found its way out of the archive so it can have the audience it deserves.
Biopic | UK cinemas, 27 October 2023 | Modern Films | Certificate: 12A | Dir. Carol Morley | Monica Dolan, Kelly Macdonald, Gina McKee, Kieran Bew.