Edward Hopper’s paintings start to move. It’s a fine idea, but hard work.

Distributor: Montage Pictures/ Eureka Entertainment
Time: 92 mins

The paintings of Edward Hopper are instantly recognisable, particularly the indoor scenes with flat areas of colour and detached figures staring at geometric patches of sunlight on the floor.
Such paintings invite the viewer to pause and climb inside the character’s mind, as Hopper catches them at introspective moments.
So it is not a massive leap to turn these into film, as Austrian experimental filmmaker Gustav Deutsch has done in Shirley.  
The film is essentially a sequence of thirteen tableaux; points that trace the life of fictional, inrtrospective actress Shirley (Stephanie Cumming) and sometimes her photo-journalist husband Steve (Christoph Bach) from the early thirties until the mid-sixties, so showing glimpses of America from the days of the Great Depression through Second World War, McCarthyism, Vietnam and the civil rights era.
Deutsch introduces each painting with radio news headlines from around the world on 28th August of a particular year. The minimal movement in the scenes is augmented by the characters’ spoken thoughts. Occasionally, music (from Japan’s David Sylvian) aids the ‘narrative’.
Its sets are wonderful creations, studiously reconstructed, with an obvious love of Hopper’s work (Shirley’s journeys follow Hopper’s own favourite locations, featuring New York, Paris and Cape Cod). So it would have been good to see behind the scenes, to appreciate the fascinating work of getting the shapes, colours and lighting right, but the extras only include a trailer.
Deutsch could have created a more compelling storyline. The viewer has to work a lot harder than normal, as there is no emotion shown; no traditional plot structure at all; no twists or issues needing resolution. These are scenes to be watched meditatively, as if looking at the original paintings, to get inside their world and wonder about their characters’ lives. It may work better with the sound off, used as moving pictures.
As such, it cannot be compared with other films, but if Hopper’s work is important to you, there’s a fair chance that this dual-format (Blu-ray & DVD) release will also appeal – especially trying to spot the moment that recreates the original painting.

Derek Walker