In Postcards From London, a lovely piece of whimsy about gay life in a bygone London, Harris Dickinson plays Jim, an innocent who leaves the wilds of Essex (translation: London suburb often associated with dull-and-boring) for the metropolis in search of fame and adventure. Winding up in a nostalgically refurbished Soho from before the sleek corporate types moved in, the eager teen suffers the usual big city roughing-up. His luck improves when he's hired by The Raconteurs, a group of young male escorts who specialize in brainy after-sex conversation about the arts.
Go ahead, giggle. Among other responses, writer-director Steve McLean wants you to get as playful as he does about his nocturnal fantasy, harking back to the 1970s when Soho was the haunt of artists like Lucian Freud, Derek Jarman and McLean himself. All manner of wacky stuff attends Jim's apprenticeship as a gay muse to older, arty and well-heeled clients. Here's a taste: An Ancient-Rome-obsessed client in a toga eats cheeseburgers in a cheap motel. Jim's professional headshot has him hefting a fruit basket, a nod not only in the direction of his beloved Caravaggio, who (played by Ben Cura) appears in a dream sequence to gripe that "no one ever asks Caravaggio if he's having a nice day."
Dickinson, whom you may remember as the confused baby gay in Eliza Hittman's 2017 Beach Rats, has a face ready made to play any Candide soldiering through a cruel world. But though Jim's beauty takes London's gay underworld by storm, he's more than a seraphic face atop an Adonis body. Soon we find him and his new pals, each in his rent-boy shop front, industriously studying up on art history. The Raconteurs are a casually international, multi-ethnic bunch who burst into song and dance as needed and who busy themselves, like a pack of cheery Snow White dwarfs, rebranding their new recruit as a star. Sex is as much part of the service package as painting, and Jim is fully on board. But there's a snag: He suffers from Stendhal Syndrome, an affliction that causes him to faint dead away in the proximity of genuine works of art. While out cold, he dreams he's a character in the painting, nattering away to the supporting cast, also in robes'n'things.
Highly stylized (the film was shot entirely on a sound stage) and tricked out in neon reds and blues that restore Soho to its former tawdry grandeur, this is McLean's first feature since Postcards from America, his well-received 1994 adaptation of the writings of New York painter David Wojnarowicz. Like that film, Postcards From London is episodic in structure, which makes the story ramble here and there. For all its air of improvised jauntiness, this is a film of many moods with a haunting score by Julian Bayliss. (Jonah Hauer-King, who plays the head Raconteur, gives a soulful rendition of "My Funny Valentine.") McLean's nostalgia for the Soho of Francis Bacon, Freud, and Jarman (all of them clear influences on his own work) is touchingly wistful about the ravages of time, and he's serious about probing the mixed blessings of sex, art, beauty and authenticity.
Sex and art get equal time the Raconteurs' service package, whose mission is to brighten clients' post-coital tristesse and alleviate urban ennui. When Jim models for an older artist (Richard Durden) from the Francis Bacon era, he discovers that becoming a muse is both less and more than it's cracked up to be. Given his illness, it's also only a matter of time before Jim falls into more pernicious hands. A money-grubbing art forger (Leemore Marrett Jr.) tries to harness his talents for a creative business opportunity, and Jim is brought to reconsider art as just about any work that converts life into imagination, including a bunch of creatively rearranged cardboard boxes that somebody calls home.
That little shock of the new, in turn, will bring new ways of seeing about whom Jim gets to call friend. All of which — tiny spoiler alert — is worth a little song and dance, innit?