A biopic of Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí sounds like the perfect fit for director Mary Harron, with her background in the arts—she started her career as a researcher for the British arts program “The South Bank Show,” and her first feature film “I Shot Andy Warhol” was a fictionalized account of the artist and Valeria Solanas, the woman who attempted to murder him—and her history helming movies centering around extreme personalities—the aforementioned “I Shot Andy Warhol,” 2000’s now-classic “American Psycho,” and 2018’s “Charlie Says,” about the women in serial killer Charlie Manson’s life. But Harron’s “Dalíland,” directed from a screenplay by her husband, writer John Walsh, keeps its subject at arm’s length, acknowledging the fascinating quirks in his personal and professional life without mining them for any depth, and blowing past the opportunity to use the characters for any sort of commentary on gender roles, creativity, and power in favor of a stunningly by-the-numbers biopic.
Set during the later period of his life in the mid-70s, “Dalíland” finds Salvador Dalí (Ben Kingsley) and his wife of 40 years, Gala (Barbara Sukowa) living in New York City’s St. Regis Hotel. Their suites are a bohemian paradise, a near-constant party populated by colorfully attired young people and oozing sex and booze. But Dalí’s work has otherwise been sporadic, so fresh-faced gallery assistant James (Christopher Briney) is assigned to stay close to him and ensure he gets a show up in three weeks time. During his time at Dalíland, the somewhat naïve James falls in love with one of Dalí’s regular female companions, Ginesta (Suki Waterhouse), becomes acquainted with his muse, transgender singer and model Amanda Lear (played by an incandescent Andreja Pejic), and catches a glimpse into Dalí and Gala’s complex dynamic. The pair essentially have an open marriage, although while Dalí is more reserved, Gala flaunts her affairs, to his apparent chagrin (one of the film’s more humorous asides explores her infatuation with star of Broadway’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Jeff Fenholt, played by Zachary Nachbar-Seckel). On the professional front, Gala served as Dalí’s business manager, and was reportedly alternately responsible for his successes and for bringing him to the brink of ruin.
But by opting in favor of telling their story from the perspective of an outsider—that of James—Harron’s film is never able to acquaint the audience as intimately with Dalí and Gala as it ought to. James may act as the audience’s eye into their world, but “Dalíland” perhaps would have been more effective had it thrust us more closely in the midst of Dalí and Gala’s unconventional union: the sexual politics, the way each of them harnessed power in the relationship, the respect and love that went beyond romance but also the resentment they harbored for each other. The occasional flashbacks (in which Ezra Miller unfortunately plays the temperamental young Dalí) that portray their initial attraction to each other and the ways in which Gala supported Dalí’s work from an early stage go a great way toward providing more understanding for the basis of their love. But for a film that supposedly centers around their marriage, they sometimes feel like side characters in their own movie, and the narrative doesn’t weight each of their contributions to the relationship equally; there are long stretches of time where Gala is not onscreen, even if her presence is often felt in the dialogue.
The performances of both Kingsley and Sukowa are rich considering what they are given, however. Kingsley, who frequently physically resembles Dalí in face as well as voice, plays Dalí with an impish grin and a twinkle in his eye, evident from the opening scene, a recreation of Dalí’s humorous appearance on “What’s My Line?” (you can watch the real segment here). That playfulness gives way later to sadness and hysteria surrounding death and aging. Sukowa actually has the more outwardly showy role, but she has a strong chemistry with Kingsley in what scenes they do share that convincingly convey their history, her delivery and the way she holds herself confirming her assertive personality as well as some vulnerabilities and fears she possesses about aging. Rupert Graves, meanwhile, is reliable support as Dalí’s secretary Captain Moore. There’s a more interesting movie lurking somewhere in this one’s depths, but despite a well-rounded cast and Hannah Edwards’ eye-catching period costumes, “Dalíland” is too broad and lacking in specificity in its portrayal of its subjects, failing to properly capture Dalí and Gala as artists and as people.
Runtime: 104 minutes.