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.
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.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Starts March 1, Landmark Nuart Theatre, West L.A.