James is played by Danish actor Claes Bang, who rose to sudden international stardom in Ruben Ostlund’s The Square when it won the Palme D’Or in Cannes in 2017. Bang is tall, charming, exuberantly confident: a credible swindler. As Cassidy, Mick Jagger lets his accent vamp as freely up and down the English class system’s keyboard as it does in real life. Donald Sutherland, as the artist, seems avuncular, courtly, probably a bit dotty, but any actor of 85 brings his past with him: there is an ominous sense that the Donald Sutherland of 1900 or The Hunger Games is waiting to be unleashed. Australian actor Elizabeth Debicki, as Berenice, is both poised and puzzling. “The characters are styled as old-fashioned movie stars: Elizabeth looked a bit like Grace Kelly and Claes is a Cary Grant figure,” says Capotondi.
One director after another who has worked with Debicki remarks on her cool, distant demeanour, which she says is not really her at all. Debicki, 30, grew up in Melbourne and was the girl who spent a lot of time in the school library; she proudly describes herself as a dag. “One time, Isabella Rossellini said I was mysterious, and it basically made my life because I’ve always wanted to be mysterious,” Debicki told Variety in a recent interview. “The truth is, I can’t keep up that act for more than four seconds. As soon as I get to know somebody, that narrative goes away pretty quickly.”
It is an effective veneer, however, which has allowed her to slip undetected between very different roles: flapper socialite Jordan in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby; an arms dealer’s enigmatic mistress in The Night Manager; Virginia Woolf; and one of a Chicago heist gang in Widows. “Elizabeth’s one of these great actors who, when they’re brought to your attention, you realise you’ve seen them in a lot of things but not realised it’s the same person,” says Christopher Nolan, who cast her as Kenneth Branagh’s estranged wife in his forthcoming time-warping spectacular Tenet. “For somebody as striking and interesting to look at as she is, the idea she has a chameleon-like ability speaks volumes to her skills as an actor.”
It is exactly this elusive quality she brings to The Burnt Orange Heresy. Capotondi says she was more supine in the book; he wanted a strong personality. She is also allowed to be funny, as she is in real life; from the first scene, Berenice and James establish a mocking style of banter. Some critics have blamed this shift for upending the story. “There are some issues that are not satisfactorily resolved,” said the Hollywood Reporter. “The main problem is that Berenice (and also Debicki!) is clearly at least as smart as James, so a few last-act twists are hard to stomach.”
Some of Berenice’s mystery is acquired, like a cloak of invisibility that allows her to glide through a world that is not hers. Maybe. “Everybody has a different checklist of ‘she could be this or that’,” Debicki told the Boston Herald. “What’s interesting in the relationship between her and Claes’s character is that because of where she is in her life, she presents a blank canvas and he can project on to her whatever he wants her to be. Which is a dangerous place to be in the end. You become very vulnerable and lose track of yourself.”
There is no need to explore or explain Joseph Cassidy; the fact he is played by Jagger is all the explanation you need. Having lured James to his lair, his Satanic Majesty offers James a Faustian bargain: the interview in return for stealing one of Jerome’s closely guarded late paintings. Jagger’s familiar leer confirms that there is nothing about James that Joseph has not divined, no foible he has not pinned, no crime he has not anticipated.
“We were looking again for someone with a strong personality,” says Capotondi. “We knew from common friends that Mick was looking for maybe a last film to do.” Capotondi had his reservations. “Obviously, because he’s the most famous rock star in the world. I was not scared of his acting skills – in fact, he proved to be a very good actor. I was afraid of the fame he brings with him. But he proved to be extremely professional and very, very nice.”
“I was afraid of the fame he brings with him. But he proved to be extremely professional and very, very nice.”
Director Giuseppe Capotondi on casting Mick Jagger
“I was super f—ing star-struck,” says Bang breezily. Debicki was cast first, he says. Then he was. “Then, all of a sudden, they phoned me and said, ‘Oh, Mick Jagger is going to play…’ What? ‘Yes and Donald Sutherland.’ And they are legends, you know. I was like, ‘Please sit me down on a chair before Mick comes into the room because I might faint or something’. Obviously I didn’t.” The first day on set, they discussed their scene. “So we were straight into it. But I thought the open-minded, humble way of approaching something that is not something that is his comfort zone was f—ing amazing.”
In real life, Bang is less like Cary Grant than the characters he plays here and in The Square; he has far too much piratical swagger to faint at the sight of an old rocker. It is true, he agrees, that The Square changed his life. He was lucky that Ruben Ostlund was looking for someone like him, even luckier that it went to Cannes, where the whole industry would see him. “I worked really well in that film and I can carry a film for two and a half hours. I’ve got what my agents call a great playing age, because I’m like mid-40s [to look at].” He is actually 53. “So that was really lucky, but what is really what I’d like to take pride in is that I also had what it takes to make that f—ing thing work. And it wasn’t easy.”
He was initially disconcerted, he admits, when he started reading The Burnt Orange Heresy and realised it was another script about an art expert – “that was weird” – but it won him over. “Then we started working on it, preparing it and reading again and I thought, ‘Ooh, this could be the continuing story of what happens to that guy in The Square [in which Bang played an art curator], because he loses his job in a big museum and so we don’t really know what happens to him; this could be it.’ But I think there is something else with this guy. He’s darker. I really liked Christian in The Square; I thought he did everything sort of out of a big heart, in a way. He just wasn’t very clever, very aware of himself. This one is more cynical. He’s all vanity and ambition, isn’t he?”
The comparison ends there, however. Capotondi was never especially interested in the machinations of the art world. He is interested in art itself; he collects photographs and has a fascination with what art signifies. “How it has become, since the ’70s, a means to money rather than beauty or pleasure. It all changed when the hedge funds starting to buy art and the prices of paintings skyrocketed.” The art in The Burnt Orange Heresy, however, is more of a conduit to a bigger theme. “It’s set in the art world, but it is mostly about how far we are willing to go to gain success or fame or fulfil our dreams.” But it was no less an artist than Pablo Picasso, he says, who said that art was a lie, albeit a lie “that makes us realise truth”. “So it’s about ambition, but the core theme is the truth.”
The Burnt Orange Heresy opens on July 23 in cinemas nationally, except Victoria. The film will release in Victorian cinemas at a future date to be confirmed.
Stephanie Bunbury is a film and culture writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.