The Obscure Life of the Grand Duke of Corsica review – Tim Spall as oddball architect

Spall plays an eccentric architect hired to design a tomb for the the eponymous aristocrat, in writer-director Daniel Graham’s homage to Peter Greenaway

Having apprenticed in arthouse distribution, writer-director Daniel Graham has nobly devoted himself to reviving the aesthetics of once-prominent auteurs deemed unfashionable, uncommercial or both simultaneously. Graham’s 2017 film Opus Zero followed in the thematically dense, landscape-attentive footsteps of Theo Angelopoulos; this deeply eccentric follow-up tips a plumed hat to Peter Greenaway, casting Timothy Spall in what instantly resembles a post-Brexit update of 1987’s The Belly of an Architect. There’s a lot of vomit, and the film is something of a splurge itself, pebble-dashing the screen with ideas. Yet its better ones stick: whether new or regurgitated, the constituent elements are forever intriguing, even if Graham only partially pulls them together at the last.

Spall is at his most Hogarthian, making a full three-course meal out of the contradictions of architect Alfred Rott, a sharp-suited vulgarian (and self-described “intractable arsehole”) dispatched to sunkissed Malta to oversee the construction of a new concert hall. Fired after his employers clock the building’s resemblance to female genitalia, Rott’s certainties are further tested upon encountering the eponymous figure, an ailing dandy (played by Peter Stormare at his most Stormarean) who wants him to design his final resting place.

Graham, likewise, has much on his mind. This central narrative is interwoven with cutaways to 13th century monks and lepers, while a subplot concerning the Maltese authorities’ efforts to control a malaria outbreak suggests the script was being rewritten as the pandemic took hold.

Graham, however, is vastly more restrained around matters of the flesh than his predecessor, replacing Greenaway’s visual opulence with a pared-back, still-striking elegance. What remains is a comparable playfulness: as in Opus Zero, a droll humour is a bulwark against accusations of pretension. A Pasolini-via-Python prologue sees an overhydrated monk tell St Francis that “I need to visit the shrub”; practically the final line is “Your money’s over there, underneath the dildo”. Most disarmingly, Rott becomes actively sympathetic, an index of Spall’s enduring ability to humanise cantankerous cranks. As with Greenaway, the inbuilt ripeness may repel some viewers, and certain themes go under-metabolised, but it’s reassuring to see someone still tossing out curveballs like this.

• The Obscure Life of the Grand Duke of Corsica is released on 17 September in cinemas.


Mike McCahill

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Last Bus review – a cliche-packed vehicle for Timothy Spall
A widower takes a nostalgic journey from John o’Groats to Land’s End using his free bus pass in a well-acted but overly sentimental film

Peter Bradshaw

26, Aug, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
Mrs Lowry and Son review – Redgrave and Spall paint a delicate portrait
Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Spall steal the show in this low-key tale of the great artist finding success while caring for his curmudgeonly mother

Peter Bradshaw

28, Aug, 2019 @12:15 PM

Article image
Stanley: A Man of Variety review – Timothy Spall communes with the comedy greats
In this macabre one-man drama, Spall is marvellous as a psychiatric patient who brings to life a string of showbiz icons

Peter Bradshaw

15, Jun, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Timothy Spall: 'The feeling of doing it wrong gets bigger and bigger'
He is one of Britain’s favourite actors. This year, he’s been on stage in The Caretaker and is set to star in films as Ian Paisley and Holocaust denier David Irving. So why is Timothy Spall so full of doubt?

Catherine Shoard

21, Jun, 2016 @6:34 PM

Article image
The Last Bus review – going nowhere fast with Timothy Spall
Spall plays a widower taking his wife’s ashes the length of Britain by bus in this lumbering drama

Simran Hans

29, Aug, 2021 @11:30 AM

Article image
Mr Turner review – Timothy Spall and Mike Leigh command the screen | Peter Bradshaw’s film of the week
This confident portrait of the great artists hits its stride straight away, with pin-sharp direction and performances, writes Peter Bradshaw

Peter Bradshaw

30, Oct, 2014 @3:49 PM

Article image
Denial review – overwhelmingly relevant assertion of truth
As flat-earthery returns to the world, this drama about a historian’s pursual through the UK justice system by a Holocaust denier is refreshing and very pertinent

Peter Bradshaw

26, Jan, 2017 @10:45 PM

Article image
Timothy Spall: ‘the brutal, sinister world of my comedy heroes’
The actor’s new film – Stanley, A Man of Variety – echoes David Lynch and a dark Ealing classic. Here he tells why he chose to re-create the giants of music hall as ‘English noir’

Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent

26, May, 2018 @1:00 PM

Article image
Finding Your Feet review – starry cast save creaky golden-years Britcom
Imelda Staunton and Celia Imrie play sisters forced to live under the same roof in a feelgood but frustrating comedy

Peter Bradshaw

22, Feb, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
The Party review – conniptions amid the canapés in an observant real-time farce
Kristin Scott Thomas stars as a shadow cabinet member hosting one of those dos at which shock revelation follows shock revelation, in Sally Potter’s short, smart comedy

Peter Bradshaw

13, Feb, 2017 @10:01 PM