Rodrigo Areias brings a slice of Victorian London to life in his latest drama, using the mysterious life of art dealer Charles Augustus Howell as a window into a tumultuous cultural moment. Though not a household name today, Howell moved among the biggest artists and writers of the era, including the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. With his cravats and bravado, he cuts a striking figure as both an enabler and exploiter of creative talents.
This lyrical film aims high in recreating the hothouse intensity of bohemian London. While it occasionally tilts into stylized excess, the cast brings charm and complexity to larger-than-life figures. We may never fully unravel the real Howell, but the film captures his spirit as a shape-shifter at the colorful intersection of art, business, and skullduggery. Viewers seeking an escape into Victorian intrigue will find much to enjoy. Just don’t expect the tidy morals of a period drama. In the world of Howell and the Pre-Raphaelites, lines between creativity and vice are blurred into a lush haze.
Taking a Walk on the Wilde Side in Victorian London
The Worst Man in London immerses us in the avant-garde art scene of the 1860s, where poets and painters are living fast and loose behind respectable facades. Our guide to this bohemian underworld is the wily Charles Augustus Howell, a dealer and fixer who glides between struggling artists and high-society patrons.
The main action centers on Howell’s connections to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a circle of rebellious artists aiming to reject stuffy conventions. We see how he enables, exploits, and manipulates talents like the painter-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his melancholic muse-wife Lizzie Siddal. Striking a Faustian bargain, Rossetti trades his genius for the laudanum which Howell provides, spiraling into addiction.
As Howell’s double-dealings unfold, the story gives us a thrilling tour of Victorian vice, from opium dens to schemes to unearth buried artworks and move contraband paintings. While the shadowy plot winds through aristocratic drawing rooms and grungy London alleys, it returns to the tragic romance of Rossetti and Siddal. Their toxic passion provides the tortured heart in this intricately layered drama about art, commerce and deception.
By using the enigmatic life of Howell as a key, The Worst Man In London unlocks a portal into a mesmerizing historical moment. Walking these vivid streets, we discover the glamour, grit and humanity within a revolutionary artistic community.
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Going Beyond the Paintings: Themes of Vice, Genius and Manipulation
Though The Worst Man in London contains all the lavish costumes and manners of a standard period drama, its mood inhabits a darker palette. Sweeping us inside the swirling energy of an incendiary artist community, the film explores provocative ideas around creativity and morality.
As we follow the shadowy exploits of Howell, themes emerge examining the relation between genius and vice. The Pre-Raphaelite artists aim to capture truth and beauty, yet we see them constantly enabling their own self-destruction through opium addictions enabled by Howell. He himself compares their creative breakthroughs to a gamble that relies on ruinous risks.
Beyond the individuals, the story looks at how artists must engage with dealers and patrons to sustain their work. This opens questions about integrity, manipulation and compromise. Howell’s secret schemes to control vulnerable talents for profit provide a sinister counterpoint to his promoters like John Ruskin. Yet perhaps the film suggests all player in this marketplace partake in some moral ambiguity.
While the film inhabits the look of a costume drama, don’t expect the tidy morals of Austen or Merchant Ivory. Instead, with its wretched addicts, gritty back alleys and fluid sexual mores, The Worst Man in London has more in common with the earthier monde of Dickens or Balzac. Like them, it provides not just period detail but a penetrating study of human frailty behind respectable facades.
Ultimately this lyrical, slow-burning film transcends melodrama to pose resonant questions about the connection between creativity, obsession and deception – both in Victorian England and perhaps our own time.
Bringing the Paintings to Life
Visually, The Worst Man in London casts a spell, immersing us in the Art for Art’s Sake scene of Victorian England. Shooting in Portugal, cinematographer Jorge Quintela makes evocative use of cathedral interiors and narrow cobblestone streets that convincingly stand in for London. The camerawork has a graceful mobility, gliding through squalid opium dens or following Howell through the misty night streets like a prowling demon.
The attention to period detail shines through in the sumptuous brocades and velvets of the costumes designed by Lucha D’Orey. In interior scenes, deep jewel-box colors and dreamy lighting recreate the saturated hues favored by Pre-Raphaelite painters. If anything, the luminous visual style starts to feel mannered, as if forcing drama into every flaring candle or curl of smoke.
What stands out most are the faces – worn, hungry, or slyly calculating. In close-up, the lead actors masterfully externalize inner demons. Together with the ominous production design, they transform the screen into a dark fairy tale shot through with menace, desire and intrigue.
Finding Its Flow
With its tangled web of schemes and artistic anguish, The Worst Man In London doesn’t follow the tidy plot arcs of most period dramas. Instead, it has the meandering, episodic structure of a boozy confession, full of colorful digressions.
In mood and aesthetics, the film channels the frantic intensity of a Rembrandt painting, built from dramatic contrasts – gleaming brocades and muddy back streets, spiritual yearnings and sordid betrayals. Shifting from languid to frantic in rhythm, are we in a reverie…or a nightmare?
While these wild swings in tone effectively convey the artistic temperament, they may frustrate viewers craving a neatly braided story. Characters slide in and out of the action, scenes cut off abruptly, and the ending refuses to redeem anyone.
Yet patient viewers who surrender to its erratic current will be rewarded. Like jazz, the film follows its own internal dream-logic, forgoing rules to capture a more emotional truth. Those willing to accept a messier vision may find the effect intensely evocative: a contact high of inspiration and anguish. Sometimes finding the flow means letting structure dissolve into the fog.
Bringing Rogues and Artists to Life
At the center of The Worst Man in London, Albano Jerónimo makes a meal of the role of Charles Augustus Howell. With his extravagant facial hair, wolfish grins and hypnotic stare, he captures Howell’s paradoxical mix of menace and allure. One can see how his magnetism would allow him to seduce or exploit aristocrats and artists alike.
As the tragic poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Ashley telegraphs spiritual torment in his hollow cheeks and haunted stare. We understand his Faustian choice to suffer addiction in exchange for the absinthe-green visions that Howell provides through his gruesome ministrations. Victoria Guerra also crafts a poignant portrait as Lizzie Siddal, conveying fragility but also flickers of her defiant creative spirit.
In smaller roles, the supporting cast shines as well: the great-granddaughter of Chaplin brings humor and spunkiness to her aristocrat. A weathered Timothy Spall chews scenery with relish as painter William Holman Hunt. Christian Vadim projects louche decadence as the French ambassador.
With their committed performances, the ensemble casts a vivid spell. If characters verge on the theatrical at moments, perhaps this captures the self-consciously performative nature of artistic bohemians, always ready to strike a pose. Taken together, vibrant characters almost upstage the labyrinthine plot – leaving indelible portraits etched against the foggy grime of London.
Wrapping Up This Trip Down the Rabbit Hole
The Worst Man in London provides a lush, lyrical escape into the scandalous world of Victorian art. Through the mercurial life of Charles Augustus Howell, it opens a portal into a time of creative ferment and moral ambiguity.
Fans of period pieces may initially be drawn in by the visual feast of costumes and set designs. But rather than a museum piece, the film throbs with the messy vitality of artists driven to extremes in pursuit of their muse. Viewers craving tidy resolutions may struggle with its kaleidoscopic structure and dead-end finale.
Yet for those hungry for a vivid plunge into the glamour and grit of bohemian London, the film weaves an entrancing spell. It succeeds in capturing the spirit of an age, using Howell as a guide down the rabbit hole. We emerge dazzled, perhaps grasping at half-understood truths about art, commerce, addiction and the human capacity for both beauty and deceit.
In the end, we realize the real subject is not this shadowy antihero but the act of creation itself – eternally blending light and dark, vision and delusion. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, the film reminds us that truth often dwells in the fever dreams.
The Worst Man in London
The Worst Man in London is a visually resplendent plunge into the murky waters of Victorian vice and genius. Those seeking tidy melodrama may wind up lost in its fragmented vignettes. But adventurous viewers will discover a dark fairy tale that vividly channels the spirit of a revolutionary bohemia. Despite some flaws in pacing, it succeeds through committed performances and feverish style.
- Visually striking period detail and costumes
- Strong central performance from Albano Jerónimo
- Captures the heady and intense atmosphere of bohemian London
- Creative themes of addiction, obsession, and manipulation
- Lush cinematography and lighting
- Uneven pacing and disjointed structure
- Overly stylized at times
- Plot can be hard to follow
- Seems to valorize toxic behaviors
- Lacks a strong directorial vision