Typist Artist Pirate King review: a compassionate portrait of Audrey Amiss

Kelly MacDonald (left) as Sandra and Monica Dolan (right) as Audrey Amiss in Typist Artist Pirate King.
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Monica Dolan brings avant-garde artist Audrey Amiss to life in a compassionate film from Carol Morley – here’s our Typist Artist Pirate King review.

With her 2011 docu-drama Dreams Of A Life, writer/director Carol Morley depicted the life of Joyce Carol Vincent, a London woman who died at home, and whose body remained undiscovered for two years after she passed. Three features later, and Morley has returned to the world of those people who remain unrecognised and isolated during their lifetimes.

Typist Artist Pirate King delves into the internal world and past of artist Audrey Amiss. Her work would gain recognition after her passing in 2013, but, despite formal training at a prestigious academy, her work was ignored during her lifetime due to ongoing mental illness that saw her spend long periods of time in psychiatric hospitals. The movie’s interesting title comes straight from Amiss’ passport, on which she described her profession as just that – typist, artist, pirate, king.

Read more: Carol Morley and her lockdown film club

Morley’s film focuses on a fictional road trip undertaken by Amiss (played with a great deal of complexity by Monica Dolan) and her psychiatric nurse Sandra (Kelly MacDonald). When Audrey sees an opportunity to get her artwork seen, she talks Sandra into making the long trip from London to her hometown of Sunderland. Along the way, Audrey relives past events by mistaking passers by for important figures in her life. As her tragic story unfolds, Morley’s film paints a compassionate picture of a person who was misunderstood and dismissed because of mental illness.

Dolan’s portrayal of Amiss is transformative. Not only does she physically embody her character well, but also portrays the storm of varied emotions that she seems to consistently exist in. Amiss’ often-unpleasant past experiences lead to a lot of confusion and anger as she relives those events throughout the film. But there’s an excitement in her as well, a hope that if she could only display her art somewhere, then someone would recognise the value in it.

Monica Dolan (left) as Audrey Amiss and Kelly MacDonald (right) as Sandra in Typist Artist Pirate King.

Portraying mental illness is always a complicated matter, but Morley manages to handle the portrayal of Audrey in a way that’s compassionate and non-judgmental, while also acknowledging through the character of Sandra the difficulties that can come with trying to help people to manage mental illness, and the impact it can have on others around them. A particular scene set in an abandoned psychiatric hospital is a real standout, giving us a new level of understanding of Audrey as it draws attention to the medieval and cruel treatment of patients in the not-too-distant past.

The road trip structure of Typist Artist Pirate King leads to some uneventful scenes, and the plot feels stretched a bit thin, but Dolan and MacDonald work well together to convey the sense of a growing understanding between the characters as a complicated friendship forms. To liven things up a bit, there are occasional fantasy sequences that act to portray what’s going on in Audrey’s mind, but they’re utilised very infrequently, and therefore feel slightly jarring and out of place.

Kelly MacDonald, as well as other supporting actors Gina McKee and Kieran Bew, don’t get characters who are awfully fleshed out, and as a result don’t have much to work with. But in a way it feels fitting that the movie’s focus should remain on Amiss and Dolan’s performance. Typist Artist Pirate King ends up being a very personal tale about Amiss’ life, and Morley’s done good work in bringing an underappreciated artist – who many may not have known about – further into the public’s consciousness with this film.

Typist Artist Pirate King is in UK cinemas on 27th October.

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