Carol Morley, a filmmaker, has crafted a charming and imaginative tribute to the overlooked English artist Audrey Amiss. The character of Audrey is portrayed with great enthusiasm by Monica Dolan. Morley’s natural empathy and warmth shine through in this generous film. Rather than romanticizing the transformative suffering of mental illness, Morley presents a more nuanced and realistic view.
Amiss, a native of Sunderland, studied painting at the Royal Academy during the 1950s. However, she experienced a mental breakdown and spent the rest of her life in and out of institutions. Eventually, she found work as a secretary but continued to create art that went unsold and unseen. Her work consisted of raw impressionistic sketches depicting her daily life as well as an autofictional collage-journal filled with found objects such as packaging, flyers, and leaflets. She also included stream-of-consciousness diary entries, resulting in a continuously updated real-time manuscript that revealed her hidden life. This collection is currently held at the Wellcome Collection in London, and Morley was the first person to examine it. It is likely that biographers will delve into Amiss’s life in the future. During her research, Morley came across Amiss’s passport, which listed her occupation as “Typist Artist Pirate King.”
This situation is similar to Morley’s 2011 film Dreams of a Life, where she attempts to piece together the life of a mysterious woman who left behind no personal accounts before her tragic passing. In this case, Morley has access to a large collection of archived material, but has opted to create a fictional story based on only a few significant clues, resembling a classic road trip movie.
In a chaotic London apartment, Dolan portrays Amiss as a fidgety and anxious character, constantly on guard and unhappy, suspicious of others and dwelling on the past. Kelly Macdonald plays Sandra, an imaginary social worker who visits Amiss’s flat every two weeks to endure a constant stream of verbal abuse. Despite Amiss’s cantankerous and ungrateful behavior, she insists that Sandra drive her to a nearby art gallery where she believes she will finally be able to showcase her work. Reluctantly, Sandra agrees, with Amiss providing vague directions and dubbing her “Sandra Panza.” As they hit the road, Amiss reveals that the gallery is actually in Sunderland, her hometown, where she plans to confront her childhood and her sister Dorothy (Gina McKee). With no other choice, Sandra continues the journey, feeling insulted by Amiss’s actions.
Audrey, in this state, experiences distorted perceptions and interprets them incorrectly, yet remains dedicated to documenting them in her overflowing scrapbook. Had it not been for Dolan’s lively portrayal and Macdonald’s thoughtful sensitivity to balance it, the overall effect may have been lacking. The casting effectively complements the writing, resulting in a darkly comedic and tragicomic portrayal of their struggles. Amiss, played by Dolan, is nearly unbearable with her incessant rambling and lack of self-awareness. Even after crashing into a tree while driving, she gushes about the tree’s artistic qualities and berates Sandra for not appreciating it.
Similar to other films that follow a journey, this film is also moving towards a moment of realization and emotional release that Amiss may have never experienced in her life. The cinematography by Agnès Godard is remarkable and the empathy portrayed in the film is evident. It is now necessary to have a proper showcase of Amiss’s artistic creations.