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Review: ‘Mapplethorpe’s’ Matt Smith skillfully evokes the boundary-pushing photographer

Review: ‘Mapplethorpe’s’ Matt Smith skillfully evokes the boundary-pushing photographer
Matt Smith in the movie "Mapplethorpe." (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Although the fairly straightforward biopic “Mapplethorpe” may not break as much new ground as did its controversial subject — famed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe — director Ondi Timoner, who co-wrote with Mikko Alanne (based on a screenplay by Bruce Goodrich), has crafted a stylish, evocative, absorbing snapshot of creative expression, artistic ambition, sexuality and eroticism.

Effectively shot on 16 mm and Super 8 film, the well-designed movie, set in New York from 1969 to 1988, follows the rise of Long Island-born Mapplethorpe (Matt Smith of “The Crown” and “Doctor Who”) from poor, driven young artist working with drawings and collages to one of the world’s most provocative and influential photographers.

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The narrative capably moves through many key stages and moments: Mapplethorpe’s early romance with fellow struggling artist Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón) and their life at the legendary Chelsea Hotel; his switch to photography (thanks, Polaroid!); Mapplethorpe’s self-possessed pursuit of his gay instincts (sexually, romantically and creatively — sometimes all at once); the making and trajectory of his Jekyll-and-Hyde-like work that ranged from celebrity portraits and floral compositions to startlingly explicit, often intensely kinky male-nude imagery; and his battle with HIV/AIDS, which led to his death in 1989 at 42.

Smith proficiently embodies the photographer’s various sides — selfish, seductive, subversive, addictive, arrogant, willful, visionary — resulting in a persuasive, immersive performance. John Benjamin Hickey as Mapplethorpe’s patron and lover, and Brandon Sklenar as the artist’s photographer-brother are also strong.

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‘Mapplethorpe’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: Starts March 1, Landmark Nuart Theatre, West L.A.

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