Simon Callow Review

Dear Bruno Wollheim

Your documentary about Tom's Charles Is entirely delightful and strangely nostalgic - as you perhaps know I spent even longer engaged than Charles in that curiously cranky minuet which is called sitting for a portrait. I particularly remember the odd sense of failure I felt when Tom was frustrated - as if it was something I wasn't giving him, or worse, something I wasn't, full stop.

His portrait of me was a surprisingly lonely, vulnerable and rather amorphous image, but I recognised myself, or that self, immediately, and have been haunted by it ever since: when I look in mirrors (which my profession requires me to do rather a lot) I often see Tom's portrait staring back at me. He obviously caught an essence of me - who knows, perhaps it's THE essence of me.

He himself - when he's not being funny or informative - is daunting, strict, rather passive-aggressive and at the same time very fragile and rather humble in the face of the portrait itself, its willingness (or not) to receive, as he says, all the information about the subject stored in his brain.

The choice of Charles for the subject of your film was inspired: A Portrait of Mr Portrait by Mr Portrait. Really nerve-racking for Charles who must have sub-consciously wanted his portrait to be exemplary, a yardstick; and Tom must have felt the same.

For my part, though I had secretly hoped that he'd do a Swagger Portrait of me, I was a) curious to know what he'd see; and b) happy to be the occasion for a work of art – if he'd decided to make it wholly abstract I'd have been happy. In the end he painted a Secret Portrait of me, like the Shroud of Turin.

I only quibbled at the use of A Bennett as narrator: when he abandons satire he becomes oddly portentous. He can't help it; it's just the Yorkshire in him.

I especially enjoyed the Charlie Chaplin sequence, speeded up, but perhaps finest of all was the way you caught the mutual loneliness of sitter and painter, and the strange duality of the experience – the sitter being observed, but observing the painter, who in turn feels scrutinised; the sitter wanting to be interesting to the painter, and the painter knowing that the sitter will inevitably soon be looking at what he has made of him; the painter exposing his work to the sitter (whose soul he has been trying to steal) and the sitter exposing himself by his comments on the painter's work.

Oh, there's no end to it. - In a way, it seems to me that the process is curiously like psychoanalysis, about breaking and reforming self-images. We used to refer to the sittings as Immortality Sessions.

Bravo, a most stimulating film. Many thanks for the film.

Simon Callow (actor)