Typist Artist Pirate King: this portrait of Audrey Amiss is by turns riotous and touching

Carol Morley’s affectionate imagining of the Sunderland-born artist, whose career was hampered by mental illness, is an evocative depiction of an unjustly neglected figure.

Typist Artist Pirate King (2022)
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival

The films of Carol Morley are infused with a relentless curiosity. The Alcohol Years (2000), for example, sees Morley sifting through her own history as she attempts to fill in the gaps in her teenage drinking days, while for 2014’s mystery-drama The Falling, Morley conducted research into fainting epidemics amongst teenage girls. Watching them is like sitting with a friend who wants to tell you about the cool thing they’ve just discovered. Even when tempered with sorrow, as in 2011’s Dreams of a Life, her enthusiasm is contagious.

And so it is with Typist Artist Pirate King – the result of Morley’s time spent digging around in the Wellcome Collection, having been granted a Wellcome Institute Screenwriting Fellowship in 2015. It was here that Morley came across the archival collection of Audrey Amiss, a once-promising young artist whose career was forestalled by mental illness, but who until her death aged 79 continued to create and document original works of art, mostly drawn from her daily life. From this vast archival collection, Morley has created a collagic tribute to Amiss, pasting scraps of artworks, diary entries and anecdotes into a fictionalised portrait of the artist as an older woman as she makes her way to her native northeast for one final exhibition.

The finished work gives a sense of what it might have been like to spend time in Amiss’s company: it is warm, funny, chaotic, and a little frustrating. Cantankerous Audrey hoodwinks her frazzled careworker Sandra (Kelly Macdonald) – a woman who has never driven on the motorway – into chauffeuring her the 300-odd miles to Sunderland in a tiny yellow Nissan Leaf via A-roads and country lanes, setting the stage for a scrappy and occasionally surreal road movie.

As Audrey, Monica Dolan is a riot, careering between childish petulance and regal condescension, delivering snortingly funny one-liners in Amiss’s sing-song Mackem accent. “I’ve left the bathwater in for you… I did a wee in it,” she announces grandly to poor old Sandra, whose full name – Sandra Panza – is a nod towards Amiss’s quixotic nature – this is, after all, a woman who gives her occupation in her passport as “TYPIST, ARTIST, PIRATE, KING”. Audrey’s grip on reality is tenuous to say the least – she mistakes a yogi for a former teacher, and a hitchhiker for an old art-school nemesis. Sandra, meanwhile, is potentially on the verge of her own nervous breakdown, furiously blinking back tears as she tries and mostly fails to wrestle some sense and civility out of her charge. The film veers between Sandra’s matter-of-fact perspective and Audrey’s flights of fancy, marrying social critique and magic realism, to occasionally jarring effect.

Beautifully lit and shot by DoP Agnès Godard, the film is as much a love song to Amiss as to the North of England. Here is Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North; here the windswept beaches of Roker and Seaburn. Here are Morris dancers and medieval reconstructionists; fields of green and gold; Stockport’s Guy Garvey singing of angels and drunks and the stars that guide him home. For Audrey these things are no more or less beautiful than the stippled golden curve of a cheesy snack, the vibrant wrapper of a KitKat. Lingering shots take in Amiss’s paintings and sketches, as well as the scrapbooks of sweet wrappers that constituted her ‘avant-garde phase’.

Like Dreams of a Life or The Alcohol Years, Typist Artist Pirate King is an act of recovery and restoration. Throughout, the film hints at a formative trauma that rent Amiss in two: something to do with her father’s death, perhaps, or an art school attack, or an incident that took place at Heber’s Ghyll. But there is no great revelation. Like Joyce Carol Vincent, whose death at home went undiscovered for two years and whose existence became the subject of Dreams of a Life, Amiss was a likeable and talented woman who through no fault of her own fell by the wayside. There are brief glimpses of horror here: of a girl confined to a psychiatric ward, unable to speak to ask to be taken home, of a care system that disappoints both its staff and its patients. For the most part, though, Morley swerves these more sombre considerations, instead giving Audrey the happy ending that life denied her. It’s a noble gesture, if a little saccharine. Still, exhibitions of Amiss’s work may well follow. Thanks to Morley, Audrey might yet get her second act.