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Film review: Surviving Picasso

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To his credit, Anthony Hopkins could probably make the character of Al Bundy (from TV's "Married With Children") interesting.

Fortunately, in "Surviving Picasso," Hopkins has a much more fascinating role to play - the infamous surrealist painter and womanizer Pablo Picasso, whose prickly personality provides more than ample fodder for the usually steady actor.

Hopkins' superb performance - despite some lapses in his accent - is more than enough reason to see the movie, the latest from the Merchant-Ivory filmmaking team ("A Room With a View," "Howards End"). However, there's a lack of emotional vitality that robs this biography of some, but not all, of its impact.

The movie covers the later period of Picasso's life, in particular, his 10-year relationship with Francoise Gilot (Natascha McElhone), who was a prospective artist in her own right when she met the charismatic painter in Nazi-occupied 1943 Paris.

Despite warnings from her best friend and grandmother (Joan Plowright), as well as Dora Marr (Julianne Moore), one of Picasso's former lovers, the much-younger Francoise begins a relationship with the tempestuous, 60-something artist.

At first, Picasso dotes on the naive girl, showering her with his peculiar version of affection - si-mul-taneously insulting and reassuring her. But after a while, his true personality begins to emerge, as he tries to control all aspects of her life and crush her will.

But despite making many concessions to him - including allowing him to spend time with another one of his "families" - Francoise manages to withstand his often cruel verbal assaults and even asserts herself when it comes to raising their two children.

In fact, if anything, the experience actually makes Francoise stronger and allows her to leave him after he begins another affair with potter Jacqueline Roque (Diane Venora), who is much more compliant with his demands.

Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who adapted Arianna Huffington's warts-and-all biography, wisely avoids making Picasso too sympathetic, in spite of Hopkins' at-times charming performance. She also adds much-needed historical perspective by showing some of his relationships with others, including famed impressionist painter Henri Matisse (Joss Ackland).

Director James Ivory wisely turns the film over to his actors, in particular, Hopkins, who does a very convincing job of conveying Picasso's volatile nature.

Unfortunately, aside from Ackland, Moore and McElhone, few of the other characters are vibrant enough to stand with Hopkins' brilliant work - and Plowright, disappointingly, has little to do. And though the film has beautiful production values, certain scenes look more like '90s, rather than post-World War II, Europe.

But while the film is too uneven to rate with the best Merchant-Ivory works, it certainly is good enough to make filmgoers forget about "Jefferson in Paris."

"Surviving Picasso" is rated R for violence, including fistfights and bullfighting, scattered profanities, brief full frontal female nudity and some vulgar references and jokes.