It wasn’t perfect, but it was intimate and for that it was compelling. Paul Duane’s Barbaric Genius catches up with ex-wino, acclaimed author, skilled chessplayer and volatile cultural icon John Healy.
John Healy is most famous as author of The Grass Arena, a stunning autobiography that earned him Britain’s most prestigious non-fiction prize, the J.R. Ackerly Award. He’s most infamous as the author that threatened death by axe to the Faber & Faber executives that first published the book. Since then, he’s fought to gain back a place in the literary world and recognition for his life’s work.
Healy, one of five children to Irish immigrant parents, struggled as a youth in London to fit in. Bullied by peers for being Irish and beaten by his father for perceived weakness, Healy turned toward drink. He found himself in the convivial if deeply dangerous company of other Irish winos, haunting London’s parks and meagre private spaces. In the movie, interviews with other ex-winos and friends of Healy’s show that it was a demanding but inclusive London sub-culture, created by the vagrant laws but with the allure of acceptance.
Fifteen years later, Healy was in prison and sharing a cell with Harry Collins, the Brighton Fox. Collins taught him chess, and Healy’s obsession turned from drink to the game. After his release, Healy took up chess professionally and over the course of his career, won 11 international awards. Just as in his literary career, phenomenal intellectual ability and almost unprecedented natural skill was edged with a charismatic roughness. In the early 90s, Faber & Faber published The Grass Arena, launching him into literary superstardom. Not long after, his threat got him blackballed, and his work was unpublishable. Almost two decades after that altercation, Healy’s work is back in print by Penguin Classics, and he’s still clawing for the career he dreams of.
The feature documentary, crafted from four years of footage, is a moving collection of glimpses. At turns we see Healy’s worn hands clench and unclench and the crevasses of his face catch the deep shadows in stark bulb light as he shuffles alone through London. Through these shots, we understand Healy as the isolated, endearing, defensive and ultimately surviving figure we hoped he’d be.
The film focuses on accurately representing Healy and his current situation, linking to the past but focused on his present. It doesn’t concern itself much with being beautiful or following a narrative arc, but for that it suffers only moderately. At the outset, the audience is told that the movie is intended to capture Healy’s persona and show a certain truth about him. This it manages, through a series of fantastic interviews and beautifully intimate moments. In the early scenes, we see Healy’s reluctance to confront the camera handled deftly, which is necessary to understanding his treatment throughout the film. A remarkable conversation between Healy and Erwin James, friend, fellow writer and ex-lifer, on BrightonBeach also helps pull the first bit of the movie along. James mentions that it was Healy’s book that inspired him to write. Towards the end, Healy reminisces about Ireland and his childhood there with family, and we’re all caught in his raptures.
Parts of Barbaric Genius are clumsy, like the soundtrack music, the television montage interludes, and an extended cringe-worthy shot of Healy practicing yoga. While most of Barbaric Genius has the aesthetic of either a home movie or a nature documentary, in these scenes it feels more like an art student’s attempt at elegance and drama. That being said, the bulk of the movie is an earnest and insightful portrayal of an almost-forgotten icon. It only flounders when it strays from that goal. Though not cinematic, it's an interesting and worthwhile watch.
Barbaric Genius is out now, currently showing at the Odeon in Panton Street. For more details go to odeon.co.uk.
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