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You have to give writer-director Steve McLean credit for imagination. There have been plenty of films about male prostitutes before. But few of them have managed to weave elements involving Stendhal Syndrome, art forgery and recreations of classic paintings into the mix. Although Postcards From London ultimately doesn’t quite live up to its considerable ambitions, it offers plenty of arresting moments along the way.
The film, McLean’s first since his 1994 debut Postcards From America, revolves around Jim (Harris Dickinson), a small-town 18-year-old who arrives in London seeking adventure. Blessed with a sculpted body and, as a barmaid puts it, “the face of an angel,” Jim quickly finds that adventure by falling in with a group of Soho men calling themselves “The Raconteurs” (Alessandro Cimadamore, Raphael Desprez, Jonah Hauer-King, Leonardo Salerni). It seems they run a high-end male escort service especially catering to wealthy and sophisticated older men who thirst for stimulating “post-coital conversation” as well as sex. “You’ve got to know your Goya from your Gogol,” they counsel Jim, signing him up by having him pledge on a stack of condoms. They also warn him that his career span is likely to be limited: “You’ve got five years in the game, tops.”
It turns out that Jim actually has much more than a casual appreciation of art, as hinted at in the film’s opening scene in which he literally swoons after setting eyes on a painting by Titian, apparently a sufferer of the condition which produces extreme physical reactions to being exposed to beautiful art. Fortunately, in his new line of work, he doesn’t so much have to witness art as inspire it, at several points imagining himself and his fellow Raconteurs posing for Caravaggio (Ben Cura) and looking for all the world like actors in Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters. Later on, Jim’s condition proves highly valuable to Paul (Leemore Marrett Jr.), an auctioneer and former Raconteur who makes use of it to detect art forgeries.
For all its intellectual affectations, including frequent references to artists such as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, Postcards From London doesn’t really give you much to think about. The pic, does, however, provide plenty to look at. Cinematographer Annika Summerson contributes gorgeous and frequently witty visual compositions, shot entirely on soundstages, that give the proceedings a highly stylized veneer. Indeed, the feature feels far more theatrical than cinematic with its sumptuous sets and costumes, not to mention literary with its use of onscreen chapter headings. The supporting actors are highly theatrical as well, with the actors delivering their archly witty lines as if auditioning for a Noel Coward play.
While Dickinson’s understated performance lacks the complexity that he brought to his emotionally tortured, gay Brooklyn teenager in last year’s acclaimed Beach Rats, he certainly fulfills the physical demands of his sex-object role. Not that anything that goes on is particularly erotic: Despite the subject matter, Postcards From London has all the sexual charge of, well, postcards from London.
Production companies: Diablo Films, BFI Film Fund, Creativity Capital
Distributor: Strand Releasing
Cast: Harris Dickinson, Jonah-Hauer-King, Alessandro Cinadamore, Leonardo Salerni, Raphael Desperez, Jerome Holder, Leemore Marrett Jr., Ben Cura
Director-screenwriter: Steve McLean
Producer: Soledad Gatti-Pascual
Executive producers: Patrick Fischer, Lizzie Francke, David Gilbery
Director of photography: Annika Summerson
Production designer: Ollie Tiong
Editor: Stephen Boucher
Composer: Julian Bayliss
Costume designer: Kate Forbes
Casting: Aisha Walters