When a cast is assembled that is as elegantly depraved as the one in “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” attention must be paid. And this art-world thriller has enough burnished surfaces, glamorous locations, and dark doings to keep an audience rapt for much of the running time. Yet somehow you may end the movie feeling less full than when you began.
Based on a 1971 novel by the crime writer Charles Willeford (“Miami Blues”), “Heresy” takes place in Patricia Highsmith territory, with a handsome but ethically slipshod hero at a crossroads. Here it’s James Figueres (Claes Bang), a sleek art critic first seen lecturing a group of American tourists in Milan. The abstract painting he shows them has a tragic backstory of an artist who survived the Holocaust — or so James says, until he reveals the story is bunk and he painted it himself. Did they believe him the first time? Did his story give the painting meaning and monetary value? That’s the power of the critic.
After that lecture, he meets and has a tumble with Berenice Hollis (Elizabeth Debicki), an American running from her own backstory. And shortly after that, James and Berenice are invited to the estate of the renowned gallery owner Cassidy, who offers the critic a deal: Will James interview the reclusive genius Jerome Debney, whose work no one has seen in decades, and somehow procure a canvas for Cassidy himself?
Debney is played with old-school gallantry by Donald Sutherland. The gallery owner is played by Mick Jagger — a jack-in-the-box performance that is exceedingly pleasurable. Jagger relishes his character’s mastery of the situation like a cat enjoying a fat, fresh fish; he’s in and out of the movie fast, leaving us with the critic, his lady friend, and the aging painter on the shores of Lake Como, Italy. The circling begins.
Bang was in a similar art-world drama, “The Square” (2017), in which he played a shady museum curator; by the time his career is done, he may be reduced to cleaning brushes. The actor is strikingly handsome with an air of dissolution: James dazzles the tourists but knows deep down he’s a fraud with a scandal or two in his back pocket. Berenice has his number but for the moment doesn’t care. Still, she thinks the purpose of art is to reveal the truth. James believes the job of a critic is to “separate the good lies from the bad ones.” It’s hard to think this relationship has a future.
There’s a lot of chat about truth and lies, value and worth, in “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” which takes its name from an intentionally inscrutable title Debney has given one of his canvases. The cast negotiates screenwriter Scott B. Smith’s dialogue with finesse even when the allusions turn heavy-handed and director Giuseppe Capotondi lays on the symbolism — buzzing flies and such — with a trowel. Debicki continues to build a career that someday may be regarded as a great one. The actress is 6 feet 3 inches — a liability only in the movies, where women aren’t supposed to tower over men — but she and Bang are a fetching visual pair, and that only causes their characters’ gradual moral divergence to seem more forceful. Berenice is a smart, feeling woman having fun pretending to be jaded. But it’s the truly jaded ones you have to watch out for, and Debicki ultimately makes her character’s naivete the movie’s most sobering touch.
To say more would be to give away the game of this nominally twisty suspense drama. I will say, though, that “The Burnt Orange Heresy” builds and builds to a series of climactic acts that then unfold rather too quickly, and it takes a turn for the ugly that sours the enterprise in ways the filmmakers may not intend. (I haven’t read the Willeford novel, which takes place in Florida rather than Italy, but I imagine it has a surer grip on its tone than the movie does, not to mention a trickier sense of humor.) Jagger does pop back for a few sly double entendres, and that’s appropriate. This movie needs at least one devil we can sympathize with.
Note: “The Burnt Orange Heresy” will be showing at the West Newton Cinema and Lexington Venue, the two commercial theaters to have reopened in the Boston area to date. It’s this critic’s job to review the film while stopping short of recommending whether you should actually go to a public space to see it.
THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY
Directed by Giuseppe Capotondi. Written by Scott B. Smith, based on the novel by Charles Willeford. Starring Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger, Donald Sutherland. West Newton, Lexington Venue. 99 minutes. R (sexual content/nudity, language, drug use, violence).