Acute Misfortune peers behind the canvas to examine artist Adam Cullen's life

Thomas M. Wright hopes audiences will feel like detectives when they watch his new film about Wentworth Falls artist Adam Cullen.

Acute Misfortune charts the complicated relationship between the Archibald Prize-winning painter and the young Sydney Morning Herald journalist he enticed to the Blue Mountains in 2008 to write his biography.

"I didn't want to apply any lazy conclusions or labels about Adam," said Wright. "I really wanted to dig deep and put the audience in the position of being a type of detective, trying to understand and diagnose what is going on."

Opening in select cinemas on May 16, Acute Misfortune is about as far removed from the last feature film made about an Australian artist - the 1994 Norman Lindsay biopic, Sirens - as possible. While both movies centre on Blue Mountains artists - and were filmed locally - that's pretty much where the similarity ends.

"This is a low budget film made with huge ambition," said Wright.

"I just hope that people really embrace the idea of seeing it; of seeing a film that is reflecting on Australia and our culture, but not in a simplistic or jingoistic way."

The first-time feature director hopes Blue Mountains audiences will embrace it more than most.

"I really hope people from the Mountains gravitate towards the film because I think it's so exciting to see your own backyard on film," he said.

Local audiences will undoubtedly find much they recognise in Acute Misfortune - from the V-set trains that transport journalist Erik Jensen (played by Toby Wallace) to Wentworth Falls, to the fleeting glimpses of our landscape.

In fact, Wright partly credits the co-operation of the Blue Mountains community for the film's success.

"I don't know of another Australian film that's managed to stretch so small a budget as far as we did," he said.

"[But] working in the community - and working really closely with the community - meant we were able to expand it [our vision for the film]."

Acute Misfortune begins in 2008 when the 42-year-old painter invites 19-year-old Erik Jensen to write his biography after being impressed by a profile the journalist wrote about him for the Sydney Morning Herald. Jumping at the invitation, the ambitious writer is soon a regular visitor to Cullen's home before quickly finding himself trapped in an increasingly claustrophobic relationship with the unpredictable artist.

"The film is almost a psychological thriller at times," said Wright.

While Cullen was celebrated by the art community - he was the subject of a career retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW at 42 - he was also a deeply disturbed individual.

"This is a guy who had swastikas on his arm - and his paintings hang in Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull's house," said Wright. "You're not just making a film about an unpleasant person, you're making a film about a very difficult, very complex contradictory person, but someone that was lauded, in lots of ways, by the society he came from."

Wright co-wrote the script with Jensen, based on the journalist's own award-winning 2014 biography, Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen.

Despite the film's unflinching approach to its subject, Wright said he had the "extraordinary support" of Cullen's family, and many of his friends, in making the film.

"When Dan (actor Daniel Henshall, who plays Cullen) is painting in the film, he's painting with Adam's paint brushes. The people in the Mountains were so generous in talking to us too," he said.

Wright will share his experience of making Acute Misfortune at two special film screenings at Mount Vic Flicks on Sunday, May 26.

"To be a film director you are out on a very thin limb," he said. "The responsibility is tough to manage. You're dealing with 40-something people and all their dynamics as well as circumstances that are changing all the time... I don't think I've ever learnt so much so fast, except for having a child. It's humbling," he said.


Humbling is a word that could also be used to describe Wright's reaction to the film's critical response.

Acute Misfortune won The Age Critics Prize for Best Australian Feature Film at the Melbourne International Film Festival last year, and its score by Evelyn Ida Morris was the only feature film score to receive a 2018 ARIA nomination.

The Hollywood Reporter described it as "one of the year's most striking and accomplished directorial debuts" while in a five-star review for the Guardian, Luke Buckmaster said it was "the best and most interesting Australian biopic since Chopper in 2000".

"After four years of work you practically collapse when you read something like that," said Wright.

The director even makes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo in the film as a documentary-maker filming Cullen ahead of his major Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition.

"I figured if the film was going to take the piss out of journalism and the art world then I needed to play the idiot documentarian behind the camera and take the piss out of my myself as well!" he said.

"It was a subtle dig and acknowledgement that what we were doing can never really claim to assert itself over the biography of Adam, or over any interpretation of his art."