There's something about biopics that just scream "Oscar!" From Ray to Walk the Line, there's something the Academy can't resist about seeing the real lives of famous people played out on the screen. Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus snubs the convention of sticking more or less to the facts, attempting to build a psychic portrait of the famous 20th century photographer, while sticking only to the most basic atributes of the eccentric, real-life woman.
The story starts off at a good pace, setting up the sense of both Arbus' (Nicole Kidman) voyeurism and anxiety. By all accounts, she is a good mother and talented assistant and stylist to her photographer husband Allan Arbus (Ty Burrell). When the mystery of a new neighbour presents itself, she's enraptured by Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), a masked man who moves in upstairs. Diane becomes captivated with this man who clogs drains and keeps weird hours and acquaintances. Lionel, a side-show-attraction-turned-wig-maker, suffers from hypertrichosis, or "wolf-man syndrome," and introduces Arbus to trannies, midgets and undertakers.
The story is far from true. There was no wolf-man. Diane was not self-taught--she studied photography with the likes of Richard Avedon. Diane Arbus, a rather short, dark, upper-class jewish girl, was by no means a Nicole Kidman. The decision to take such liberties with Patricia Bosworth's biography was a ballsy move from director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, who teamed up to create 2002's Secretary. Unfortunately, by creating such fictitious circumstances, Fur creates an equally fictitious vision of Arbus, one that denies her dedication to her art and totally dislocates this stage of her life from the rest of it.
That said, Kidman's performance as a pseudo-Arbus is enchanting. She creates a character who is not only sympathetic, but at times enigmatic, and is a lovely addition to a very charming set. Burrell provides a well-grounded counterpart to Kidman's waifish and impressionable protagonist. Robert Downey Jr.'s take on Lionel is perhaps overly-theatrical and put-on, even for a character who grew up the star of a freak-show, standing out as the weakest of the embellishments.
Instead of even the most imaginary of biographies, Fur offers a dizzying 1950s fairy tale including the pretty princess, the gentle beast and the oppressive parents. Unfortunately for fans of Arbus, knowing her life's story is a hindrance to enjoying this work of fiction. For insight into the real-life Arbus, those interested are better off looking at her work.