Moira Jeffrey, 'Review' (Scotland on Sunday, 15/09/2009)

The art of the Victorian animal painter Sir Edwin Landseer has cast a curious shadow over Scotland. His Monarch Of The Glen is either national hero or villain depending on your point of view. The National Gallery of Scotland’s major 2005 exhibition of the artist seemed a curious act of denial: much was made of Landseer’s role in shaping the Victorian image of Scotland, but the show seemed deeply squeamish in confronting the politics of that image.

It also swiftly steered away from exploring what is genuinely weird and exciting about Landseer’s art: his almost pathological morbidity and how it met its match in the cult of death that permeated both the homes and hunting grounds of the Victorian aristocracy.

There’s no such delicacy in the new film by the Glasgow-based artist Henry Coombes, who has chosen Landseer as both artistic leitmotif and personal lodestar in a body of work that stretches back a number of years and saw its first big outing in film and watercolour when Coombes represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2007.

Coombes, who was an idiosyncratic star from the moment of his Glasgow School of Art degree show back in 2002, has long explored issues of class, heredity, breeding, and the cult of family that underlie them.

Landseer’s life story – he was an artistic prodigy who moved through the uppermost echelons of Victorian society – thus provides extremely rich pickings in Coombes’s exquisitely realised new drama, set in the grim Scottish shooting estate of the Duke and Duchess of Bedford. It’s a site positively throbbing with lust and frustration, and bloodlust and mourning. If it’s all heaving bosoms and unpalatable pink meat, it both plays with and outwits the clichés which Landseer himself helped cement in the popular imagination.

The Duke (Hugh Ross) is a withered – yet self-aware – old thing, given to overcompensating on the sporting field. The Duchess (Katy Barker) is a fading beauty and one-time regency player fighting against the twilight of her erotic allure. She sets her sights on the young painter commissioned to portray the extended family.

It has been suggested that the real Landseer’s relationship with the Duchess of Bedford lasted some two decades, and that he fathered at least one of her children.

If in life he was 20 years younger than his lover, Ewan Stewart plays the artist as prematurely aged, even by Victorian standards, already faded and haunted, foreshadowing the mental illness that was to dog him in later life.

With considered performances from its leads and a sly cameo from the writer Alasdair Gray as the Duke’s ancient and embarrassing father-in-law, the film slips registers from country house drama to sinister expressionism. Unbalanced by his erotic betrayal of his patron the Duke, Landseer imagines that the stags he sees rutting on the Highland hillside are naked men wrestling for dominance. The artist’s studio is a place of abject horror and even the gravy on the Duke’s table has the nauseating quality of seething mud.

If it plays with the historic, there is much in this film, however, which might also be read as a contemporary parable of art-making.

Coombes’s most significant earlier work was another short film, Laddy And The Lady, which premiered at Glasgow’s Tramway in 2006. In its exploration of the brute training and competitive life of a gundog, there also lay a salient metaphor for the marketplace in which some young artists find themselves.

Here, there is an emphasis on the awkward proximity of artist and patron, the uncertain middle ground that the former occupies, neither subordinate nor truly equal. It’s a film about the delusions of public image-making. Above all, it’s about the thrill of otherness that an artist is expected to provide. The Duke of Bedford sees the artist Landseer as “a completely foreign species”; his wife sees Edwin as a sexual invitation.

The Bedfords, supported by Scottish Screen and produced by Glasgow’s Brocken Spectre, is Coombes’s opening bid to make a full-blown feature film. On the strength of these 20 minutes, there is ample material and more than sufficient creative skill for a full-length movie, which could promise much more than the historical dramas it uses as a loose template.

It’s an exciting prospect but it will also be a real shame if, in pursuing a mainstream film career, Coombes should lose the utterly distinctive voice he forged in his art practice, and the sense that, along with his drawings and his particularly eloquent sculptures, film was only one in a myriad of artistic possibilities.