Biopics about larger than life figures often have a tough job in front of them. On the one hand, you want to keep things at least somewhat grounded, so there’s an element of historical fiction at play. On the other hand, you don’t want to dull the edge of what made someone great or iconic. Daliland, which looks at the legendary painter Salvador Dalí through other sets of eyes, tries to thread that needle. In doing so, it struggles to fully explain why Dalí was such a compelling figure. A lot of elements here work, but it falls just short of where it needs to be in order to warrant a recommendation.
Daliland is at its best when leaning into the bigness of Dalí and his life. The moments focused on other characters, or even Dalí as a younger man, fall flat. It’s the risk run by having the title character be a supporting player in their own story. Dalí does his part, but the whole package just ends up falling a bit shy of the mark.
The film takes place in 1974 and, seen through the eyes of James (Christopher Briney), focuses on the later years of the unusual marriage between Salvador Dalí (Ben Kingsley) and his wife Gala (Barbara Sukowa). James is a young assistant eager to make his mark in the art world, so when his employer sends him to Dalí’s hotel suite with a package, his entryway comes in the form of the iconic artist. Quickly entrusted to help the eccentric Dalí prepare for a big gallery show, he’s welcomed into his wild world.
While all of that is going on, we also get glimpses of a younger Dalí (Ezra Miller) and Gala (Avital Lvova), as well as the burgeoning relationship between James and Amanda (Andreja Pejic). The various relationships are strained by the stress of the art show, as well as the various personalities at play. It all seeks to present a look at Dalí unlike what we’ve seen before.
Ben Kingsley presents a vivid portrait of Salvador Dalí, that’s for sure. He embraces the bigness of the character and is clearly having a blast. More Kingsley certainly would not have been a bad thing. Christopher Briney, on the other hand, is very dry and unremarkable. The role does him no favors, but we just want more of the title character. Andreja Pejic and Barbara Sukowa have lively moments, while Ezra Miller is miscast. In addition to the aforementioned Avital Lvova, the supporting players include Rupert Graves, Mark McKenna, and more.
Director Mary Harron does a good job pacing and with the look of the film, but the screenplay sells her short. Now, the script by John Walsh isn’t bad, but it’s lacking in the added color that Harron is trying to provide. James just isn’t a compelling protagonist, while the flashbacks to a younger Dalí don’t have the same personality, in addition to Miller being miscast and sticking out. The pacing is solid enough, albeit without much flash. It’s a more ordinary work than we usually get from Harron, of American Psycho fame.
Daliland needed more Dalí, honestly. Harron does her part, while Kingsley is on point, but the story itself is too thin. You’re left not just still curious about the man, but wanting more, as well as a bit let down that we spent all this other time with other characters. As much as the intent was there, by the time the credits role, you’re still not sure you spent enough time with Dalí. Alas.