“Just be yourself,” pop art guru Andy Warhol tells flighty socialite Edie Sedgwick after roping her into one of his experimental black and white shorts. “Which one?” she shoots back, instantly captivating this king of kitsch with her provocative self-assurance. Would that helmer George Hickenlooper had given more insight into what inspired Andy to take this trust-fund debutante under his wing and make her one of his “superstars”. Instead, Factory Girl, is content merely to paint Sedgwick as a tragic victim of Warhol’s exploitative nature, her history of mental illness and an all-consuming drug habit that saw her dead in 1971 at 28.
The result is an undeniably affecting portrait of a life lived too fast, anchored by a star-making, layered performance from Sienna Miller that captures every contrary aspect of Edie’s mercurial persona. Should we care, though? Taking its cue from Guy Pearce’s portrayal of a fey, self-absorbed Andy, Hickenlooper’s movie depicts the artist’s bohemian “factory” as a shallow, insular milieu built on smoke, mirrors and sycophantic acolytes. To quote Hayden Christensen’s sullen folkie Billy Quinn, the factory is as empty as one of Warhol’s celebrated soup cans. That Sedgwick should have been taken in, chewed up and spat out hardly does her credit, making her as much prey to her own gullibility as Warhol’s vampiric machinations.
If reports are to be believed, Bob Dylan – the purported inspiration for Christensen’s character, billed as ‘The Singer’ in the end credits – is incensed at implications that he too played a part in Sedgwick’s downfall. If anything, however, his doppelganger is the hero of the piece, providing Edie a sanctuary from Warhol’s passive-aggressive puppeteering that could, Wonderland scriptwriter Captain Mauzner suggests, have forestalled her subsequent descent into addiction and penury. There’s a whiff of legal compromise in his rather abrupt departure, but what remains is enough to suggest the feral charisma that got Christensen that Vader gig. It’ll be a shame indeed if the only people who take notice are Dylan’s lawyers.
Veering between colour and monochrome (the latter used to replicate Warhol’s own grainy, ad hoc technique) and recreating ’60s Soho with an almost forensic zeal, Factory Girl clearly benefits from its director’s confidence as a documentarian. But, like I Shot Andy Warhol and Basquiat before it, Hickenlooper’s drama fails to show why Andy and his circle deserve any more of the publicity in death they so relentlessly pursued in life.
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Kudos to Miller for her touching portrayal of a doomed icon. A shame the film's as substantial as one of Warhol's silver flotations.