Typist Artist Pirate King (2023, dir. Carol Morley)

by | Oct 29, 2023

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 108 mins

UK Distributor: Modern Films

UK Release Date: 27 October 2023

WHO’S IN TYPIST ARTIST PIRATE KING?

Monica Dolan, Kelly Macdonald, Gina McKee, Christine Bottomley, Kieran Bew, James Jaysen Bryhan, Kya Brame, Joanne Allen, Gavin Kitchen, Matilda Firth

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Carol Morley (director, writer), Ameenah Ayub Allen and Cairo Cannon (producers), Carly Paradis (composer), Agnès Godard (cinematographer), Alex Mackie (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Mentally ill artist Audrey Amiss (Dolan) goes on a road trip with her nurse (Macdonald)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON TYPIST ARTIST PIRATE KING?

Going into filmmaker Carol Morley’s new film Typist Artist Pirate King thinking that it is a full-on biopic about the life of unrecognised artist Audrey Amiss would be your first mistake. That’s because the film is not about Amiss; it is of Amiss, an encompassing of the artist – whose work only gained attention following her death in 2013 – and her unique vision of the world, by another artist such as Morley who, in her extravagant and heightened interpretation of Amiss, also manages to deeply humanise a figure that was, in her own way, larger than life itself.  

Morley’s film imagines a scenario where Audrey Amiss (Monica Dolan), living alone in her messy London flat only her psychiatric nurse Sandra (Kelly Macdonald) popping in for regular check-ups, manages to convince Sandra to drive her to a “local” art gallery to display her work. Unfortunately for Sandra, “local” for Audrey means local to where she used to live in Sunderland, but luckily Sandra has nothing better to do than to drive her patient hundreds of miles up north, and so begins a road trip unlike anything either of them – or the audience, for that matter – could have expected.

That’s because Typist Artist Pirate King both does and doesn’t follow the conventional pattern of the road trip movie, with its fair mixture of expected beats and entirely unpredictable tangents. At first, you’ll have standard scenes of Audrey and Sandra bickering in the car, said vehicle breaking down, them picking up hitchhikers or hitching a ride themselves, and making several important stops along the way to their destination, as you would in a regular road trip film.

However, it will then take a turn for the downright surreal, with vicars suddenly climbing through the window of a locked woman’s toilet, Audrey stumbling across a Viking vs. Anglo-Saxon battle reenactment that promptly crowns her their ruler (moments, incidentally, after escaping a sexual assault), and other characters suddenly arriving on the scene out of nowhere on an old Army tank – and those are the things I can mention without getting into spoilers.

Morley, however, does not simply let her film go off the rails just because it can, for there is a method to the madness; a quite literal madness, unfortunately, since Amiss suffered from a number of mental health conditions such as paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and spent much of her life in and out of hospitals under psychiatric care. Throughout the film, Monica Dolan’s Audrey displays numerous signs of mental instability, from mistaking strangers for important figures from her past, to experiencing wild mood swings at the drop of a hat (which can lead to, among other things, destroying whatever is in sight), to being fearful that Kelly Macdonald’s Sandra is in cahoots with doctors to institutionalise her once more during their trip.

Importantly, though, neither Morley nor Dolan – the latter delivering a rather outstanding turn as the artist herself – allow the character’s condition to become a source of ridicule or unexpected wisdom for her neurotypical co-star, as can often be the case in films like this such as Rain Man or the far worse Music. This is, after all, a real person that they are setting out to portray, and both filmmaker and actor have an incredibly sensitive approach towards Amiss’ illness that makes you empathise with the character without being condescending towards her complex mental condition.

By incorporating Amiss’ imbalanced world view into her fictionalised take on the artist, Morley’s bizarre structuring of the film’s plot suddenly becomes much more sensical and even smarter than it seems. We are clearly seeing the world from Audrey’s point of view, albeit from one or two feet away to retain that outsider’s perspective, and as such it is one where just about anything can happen at the most random opportunity, with said thing often being treated like it’s an everyday occurrence.

In her past films, including The Falling and Out of Blue, Morley had leant into a similar type of abstract performance art that wielded mixed results from audiences (and even I’ll admit that there were parts of those films I couldn’t initially get behind), but in Typist Artist Pirate King – named after the job title that Amiss put in her own passport – the writer-director manages to grasp the David Lynch-esque surrealist nature of her narrative in ways that also benefit the viewer’s understanding of this person and her worldviews which she is setting out to portray. It is her strongest, and indeed best, filmed work to date.

Furthermore, the film achieves the illusion of feeling like an Audrey Amiss art exhibition come to life, with several of the artist’s “avant-garde and misunderstood” abstract paintings and drawings, as well as her numerous scrapbook pages filled with Cornetto wrappers and shopping receipts, being statically displayed on the screen at regular intervals. Amiss’ work, at first glance, appears to be some mindless doodling with equally eccentric captions (a memorable example being a single doodle titled “Two Girls Talking, no time to draw the second girl”), but of course there is a lot more going on underneath the surface, with the minimalist work offering a glimpse into her artistic process that is paradoxically absent-minded yet fully imaginative at the same time.

The film, and its own stripped-down episodic structure that’s often like a slightly more grounded chronicle of Don Quixote – with Kelly Macdonald’s Sandra clearly being the Sancho to Audrey’s Quixote – similarly captures Amiss’ one-of-a-kind worldview with its all-encompassing take on her life and times, ultimately saying more about this person than a straightforward biopic ever could.

As I mentioned earlier, Typist Artist Pirate King is a film of Audrey Amiss rather than a film about her, and hopefully I have been able to articulate in this review how it really does manage to capture this person’s life and career into a fictional but no less informative portrait, one that is the result of a filmmaker like Carol Morley putting so much of their own heart and soul into representing as close to her subject’s spirit as possible.

It is quite extraordinary stuff, and like Amiss herself is deserving of the most devoted audience possible.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Typist Artist Pirate King is a filmic portrait of artist Audrey Amiss rather than it is about her, in the sense that filmmaker Carol Morley sensitively captures everything about the figure from her minimalist artwork to her mental health struggles in an intentionally odd yet endearing fictional encapsulation that is, in and of itself, a sublime piece of art.

Five out of five stars

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