Little Ashes examines a love affair between renowned poet Federico García Lorca and surrealist genius Salvador Dalí during their college days in Madrid in 1922, where the legendary Luis Buñuel formed the husky hetero point to their bizarre triangle. But you won’t buy any of this while watching British director Paul Morrison’s predictable flick, whose characters bear absolutely no resemblance, physical or otherwise, to their real-life namesakes. We get no inkling that these amigos would go on to become three of the greatest masters in their respective crafts since they’ve been reduced to a stereotypical sensitive poet, a goth Johnny Depp type, and a raging homophobe. The movie stars exactly one actual male Spaniard, Javier Beltran as the doomed writer, and two of Morrison’s fellow Englishmen, Robert Pattinson as Dalí and James Dean lookalike Matthew McNulty as Buñuel. Indeed, beginning with the ridiculous casting, Little Ashes is less a film than just a series of bad ideas piled on top of one another, many courtesy of first-time screenwriter Philippa Goslett.
With a melodramatic score that alternates between sad violin and romantic guitar, and repetitive reaction shots of Lorca and Dalí in all their dreamy-eyed longing, Little Ashes is broadstroked filmmaking at its most tedious. (Lorca and Dalí’s moonlight swim to the sound of Spanish strings is practically a Calvin Klein commercial.) Platitudes like “Spain is rotting from the inside” and a scene in which Lorca kneels and prays to be rid of his “impure” thoughts are so over the top as to be comical, a grotesque sex scene between Lorca and Marina Gatell’s Magdalena, in which Dalí masturbates in the corner until both men climax simultaneously, is just downright hilarious. Perhaps the only saving grace is that all three actors are hot, which makes Little Ashes seem a mere excuse for the director to film straight boys he wants to screw. This is all fine and dandy, but if you’re going to shoot a film with mediocre talent and a terrible script then at least do it as porn. At its heart, Little Ashes is just a blue movie without the benefit of actual sex.
In all seriousness, there’s nothing sexy or funny about twisting history to fit a personal agenda—gay, straight, or otherwise. Yet this is exactly what Morrison has done by re-imagining these complicated, legendary artists as one-dimensional characters in a homo harlequin romance. By sticking a modern-day English lens on Spanish sexuality circa 1922 (a time and culture in which the gay/straight binary wasn’t fixed), Morrison gives his film the feel of a bunch of actors running around in period costume in 2009, thereby losing a crucial sense of historical context.
Besides bordering on the slanderous with the film’s portrayal of Buñuel (a gay-basher forever scowling and growling “faggot” and “maricón”), Little Ashes is particularly insulting to the memory of the martyred Lorca. “He’s still alive. Only one way to kill a queer,” Lorca’s executioner says as the dying poet twitches, as if Lorca’s only crime were the love that dare not speak its name. But the real-life Lorca was murdered for agitating a fascist dictator—in other words, battling for his countrymen as a whole, regardless of their gender or sexuality. Heroes are made, not born, and Lorca is beloved by all of Spain not for being a homosexual who desired a single individual, but for being an artist who died for his love of humanity; a great poet and activist who, incidentally, happened to sleep with men. And right about now, he’s surely rolling in his grave.