Dir: Simon Ross | Cast: Natalia Córdova-Buckley, Ryan Kwanten, Virginia Madsen, Mark-Paul Gosselaar | US Thriller
There’s an unnerving power behind Simon Ross’s feature debut – a Dorian Gray style psychodrama involving a damaged man and his wife who seems to be suffering from a syndrome called pathological grief. The Portrait is shrouded in secrets and unreliable memories but the characters feel cliched and bogus and never really make us care enough to uncover the truth. And that’s possibly the point: It appears that reality is a moveable feast in this saturnine mood piece, written and produced by David Griffiths (of Collateral Damage fame).
After Alex (Ryan Kwanten) suffers life-changing injuries in a devastating accident his capable wife Sofia (Natalia Córdova-Buckley) becomes full time carer to her vicious catatonic husband. In the attic of their palatial Californian villa she uncovers a disarming painting, purportedly a self-portrait, of Alex’s great-grandfather Calvin – a dead ringer for her objectionable hubby. The sinister painting certainly spooks Sofia out and comes alive in nifty jumps scares. Maybe Sofia is just imagining all this – or is buried guilt surfacing from her subconscious?.
Two morose blond women then enter the fray attempting to flesh out the family backstory. They are Basic Instinct style lovers Esther and Mags (Virginia Madsen), a distant cousin of Alex. Virginia Madsen is a good actress but Mags is not her finest hour. And this is where The Portrait starts to feel less plausible and more flimsy as is edges into the realms of kitsch fantasy.
With her impenetrable screen magnetism (and back muscles Mike Tyson would be proud of) Sofia holds it all together against the odds. But our credibility of her doting acceptance of the violent catatonic beast she has to put up with is stretched to breaking point, and that’s probably why she reaches out to the troubled gardener Brookes (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), a strong silent type who is also harbouring a weird secret under his overalls. The two have a brief liaison after Sofia invites him into the house for emotional support: “I’ve got vodka”.
As a sinister soundtrack weighs down on us we gradually realise that Sofia is also hiding a secret that explains Alex’s attitude, and why his love and gentleness for his wife has somehow morphed into brutality. This enigma gives the film a driving force and an undeniable allure, powering it forward to a fierce finale. The Portrait is an interesting study in the timely ‘war of narratives’. @MeredithTaylor
The Portrait is available on digital platforms from 11 December.