Surrealism, the avant-garde philosophical and artistic movement that developed in continental Europe after the cessation of the first World War, is concerned with the expression of juxtaposition, psychic free association and surprise. Many of its key members, such as filmmaker Luis Bunuel, poet Federico Garcia Lorca and painter Salvador Dali, came to be known as the Generacion del '27, a Spanish community of thinkers who expressed revolution through art. Much like the work created during this period, British director Paul Morrison's new feature Little Ashes uses non-sequitur editing, a colorful palette and occasionally obscene imagery to weave a fanciful tale of the aforementioned trio, all of whom attended Spain's famous Residencia de Estudiantes institution.
In 1922, effeminate young painter Salvador Dali (Robert Pattinson) arrives in Madrid, where he is immediately swept into the artistic and intellectual community headed by gregarious fellow student Luis Bunuel (Matthew McNulty). Upon meeting Federico Garcia Lorca (Javier Beltran), a burgeoning poet also in residence, the two form an intimate friendship that masks their instant attraction to one another. Despite the radical and progressive nature of their circle, they keep silent about their taboo desires until a moonlit summer swim transforms into a sensual encounter. But their union is complicated both by Lorca's unreciprocated relationship with the headstrong Magdalena (Marina Gatell) and Dali's carnal reticence. When Dali follows Bunuel to the artistic mecca of Paris, his obsessive rapport with Lorca is broken, until a decade later when an invitation brings them again face to face.
Little Ashes is as pretty as an illustrated picture book, with wind-blown fields of Andalusian grass and gorgeous cliff-side seascapes, but has only about as much to say. The sometimes lyrical, frequently stilted script--penned by first-time screenwriter Philippa Goslett--skips over any explanation of Spain's cultural and political revolutions, relying only on brash and heard-before drunken student diatribes and providing only a surface exploration of the work of Lorca, Bunuel and Dali. Without these anchoring pieces of history, it's a period piece that could have been set in any era. The anemic love affair between Lorca and Dali only shows energy when Magdalena aggressively takes Lorca to bed while Dali lurks voyeuristically in the corner. With exaggerated newsreel montages balanced against somber poetry recitations and a story based on conjecture--Dali repeatedly denied being intimate with Lorca--it suitably matches the surrealist ideal of skewed perspective and disorientation, but this does not make for a masterful film.
Although it was shot before Pattinson's household-name-making film Twilight (2008), the two films share three qualities--tepid sexuality, a brooding atmosphere and a story with only enough depth to fulfill a teenage girl's conception of impossible love. Pattinson is given a far better role than the one-note Edward Cullen, but his come-and-go accent and abrupt switches from shy artiste to manic pseudo-celebrity still leave him two voices short of a barbershop quartet. The other two male leads do fine work, but it is Gatell as the underutilized Magdalena that elevates the material above that of a made-for-TV movie. The script feels extremely amateurish, with characters coming and going only as needed, and an odd silence descending over the scenes whenever the two leads are speaking. Even if they're quietly discussing a painting in a corner, there's no one else speaking in the entire room. As the love story element doesn't have concrete historical evidence to support it, screenwriter Goslett uses Lorca's assassination as the emotional coda to the film, an event that has little lead-up. A jumbled and unengaging screenplay that's only slightly elevated by the superior cinematography (Adam Suschitzky) and a few first-rate supporting performances, Little Ashes only fizzles when it should flare.