“Morrison is a charming subject but there isn’t much of a story to tell here.”
Documentarian Anthony Baxter, director of the brilliant You’ve Been Trumped (an account of a group of Scots who refused to succumb to Donald Trump’s aggressive attempts to buy their land) turns his attention to a far humbler subject for his latest film. Eye of the Storm is an account of the highly celebrated Scottish landscape artist James Morrison in what would, sadly, turn out to be the final months of his life.
As often can prove difficult with documentaries, the film has found a simple structure in which to tell its story. Using the development and eventual opening of Morrison’s final exhibition as a framing device, the film moves through the artist’s life reflecting on his developing skill and success. Morrison is himself an endearing subject, happily recounting the pure joy he receives from painting whilst remaining diligently humble and amusingly self-deprecating. He’s very quick to rubbish his earlier (but nonetheless successful) work as too childish and rough, while being more interested in how it helped him to learn. The film clearly captures his passion for teaching, and while he’s incredibly harsh on himself, we can feel his joy for guiding others radiate out of him. Furthermore, despite his art bringing him fame, he clearly feels his teaching has higher purpose; “I cannot stress enough,” he says “My painting is for me, only me. It’s an argument with myself…I don’t think it has any other social meaning.”
To see the effect and importance that Morrison has had, the film turns to other subjects. Including Morrison’s oldest friends, who are each in awe of his ability to capture their imagination. There are several, quite heartfelt, accounts of how his depiction of the Scottish landscape, particularly around Montrose where he lived, revealed new depths of beauty and meaning. Such is the respect and praise surrounding Morrison that he’s revealed to be some kind or artist/creator; providing beauty just as much as he’s capturing it. All of which is very charmingly reflected in several short animations from Catriona Black. Inspired in equal parts by his life and his art, Black has created a series of vignettes copying his particular style (sometimes actually animating his paintings). These provide a backdrop to several of Morrison’s stories and are an effective way of depicting how he may have seen the world.
Interviewing Morrison in the present day, the film does touch upon much deeper sadness as he reflects on his failing eyesight. Having spent most of his career painting outside, the elderly Morrison laments that his poor vision won’t allow him to work like this any longer. Relegated to a small studio, Morrison is clearly shaken as he explains that “not even being able to pick up a brush really terrifies me.” Baxter makes some attempt to connect him to other artists in similar stages of old age; referencing Matisse drawing on the ceiling while bedridden. However, this aspect does not get very far because the film’s own subject humbly refuses to think of himself in such company.
Indeed, the film as a whole does struggle to find a complete narrative. But, to be fair, it doesn’t really try to, as its relatively short run time seems to suggest. Eye of the Storm is, instead, more interested in creating a truthful and highly respectful depiction of an artist in his old age. More than anything it wants to celebrate the man and his work, rather than try to say something too grandiose about art and culture. Which it achieves; creating an ultimately bittersweet portrait of Morrison who, despite the short time we get to spend with him, makes for very good company.
Director: Anthony Baxter
Producer: Richard Phinney
Cast: James Morrison
Release Date: 2021
Header image courtesy of Montrose Pictures