out of Five
Running time: 72
An engaging, well made documentary that presents a fascinating portrait of the remarkable life of John Healy and is by turns sobering, moving and inspirational.
What's it all about?
Directed by Paul Duane, Barbaric Genius is a documentary portrait of the remarkable life of John Healy, author of best-selling memoir The Grass Arena, which was published by Faber & Faber in 1986. After an abusive childhood, Healy had a stint in the army and was briefly a boxer before becoming a down-and-out alcoholic, sleeping rough on the streets of North London, where he witnessed brutal fights between fellow winos that were almost gladiatorial in nature (hence the title of the book).
However, during a spell in prison, John was introduced to chess by a cellmate and immediately latched onto it, giving up the drink immediately and winning several chess championships, before retiring in order to write his memoir. The Grass Arena won literary awards and was turned into an acclaimed film, but Healy's violent temper lead to a falling-out with Faber (after Healy threatened to come after a senior publisher with an axe) and his book was abruptly taken out of print, remaining so for fifteen years, until Penguin Modern Classics republished it in 2008.
Duane tells Healy's remarkable story through a mixture of archive footage, photographs, written excerpts and talking heads, as well as spending a large amount of time with Healy himself, either in interviews, observing Healy at various promotional events (e.g. playing 14 games of chess at once) or, more revealingly, having Healy retrace his old haunts. Along the way, though Healy himself is frequently guarded and suspicious (or, less charitably, paranoid), he occasionally allows us heart-breaking glimpses into his former life, most notably when remembering an incident involving his abusive father, or recalling a past relationship; he also speaks eloquently about exactly how chess enabled him to change his life.
Intriguingly, the film also acknowledges the difficulty of making a documentary when the subject is so guarded, with Duane including scenes of Healy questioning various shots and also subtly acknowledging that he may not be telling the whole truth (he admits there are things he doesn't want to say on camera).
Still, even with Healy refusing to repeat what he actually said, it's impossible to deny the injustice of his subsequent treatment at the hands of Faber and when Duane interviews alleged death-threat recipient Robert McCrum, it's difficult to believe him when he tries to play it down, especially when an anonymous column (which McCrum edits) still appears to be carrying a grudge against Healy, warning festival organisers from having him as a guest.
Barbaric Genius is a fascinating and emotionally engaging documentary that's by turns heart-breaking, sobering and inspirational. It will also have you rushing to buy a copy of The Grass Arena in case the same thing happens again.