By itself, the prospect of seeing Sir Ben Kingsley play Salvador Dalí would be enough to get more than a few moviegoers into the theater (or onto their couches, streaming). But then, so would the prospect of seeing him play practically anyone: Mahatma Gandhi (as the Academy acknowledged), or Georges Méliès, or Dmitri Shostakovich, or a foulmouthed London gang enforcer. Dalíland, which comes out next month, promises a rich portrayal of Dalí not just by Kingsley, but by also Ezra Miller, an actor possessed of a physical resemblance to the artist in his youth as well as a public life seen as scandalous and occasionally criminal.
This choice of casting, with the troubled Miller playing the young Dalí and the ultra-respectable Kingsley playing the old, reflects a certain intent to capture the duality of the character himself. Kingsley has spoken of developing his interpretation of Dalí “based on his language; his behavior; his taste in love, life, food, wine, and everything; and also his daring to break so many rules.”
You can hear him reflect more on the experience in the Deadline Hollywood video just below. “I love his work,” he says. “I love his fearlessness, and he was exhilarating and exhausting to play, as I anticipated he would be.” He also has high praise for director Mary Harron, who’s known for her adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.
Harron’s first feature was I Shot Andy Warhol, about Warhol’s near-murderer Valerie Solanas, and her most recent, Charlie Says, tells the story of Leslie Van Houten and the Manson family. Such pictures demonstrate her facility with biographical drama, as well as her investment in the culture of postwar America and the eccentric personalities that both enlivened and darkened it. Dalíland takes place in the winter of 1974, which Dalí and his wife Gala spent at the St. Regis Hotel in New York. Its protagonist, a young gallery employee played by Christopher Briney, gets pulled into Dalí’s world and becomes responsible for making sure the artist has all the work ready for his fast upcoming show.
“The film’s seventies setting allows it to be a portrait of the moment when the art world underwent its tectonic shift, fusing with the money culture, becoming a kind of piggy bank for the wealthy,” writes Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman. “Dalí and Gala have, in their way, played into this. They’re exploiters of Dalí’s legend who have, in turn, been exploited.” At that time Dalí still had about fifteen years to go, but Kingsley sees the period as “possibly the closing chapters of Dalí’s life,” the setting of “his coming to terms with mortality, a subject with which he struggled dreadfully.” The phenomenon witnessed by Briney’s character, and thus the audience, is “how a genius leaves the world” — and, in this particular case, leaves it considerably more surreal than he found it.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.