Lilias Trotter was an English-born, Victorian-era painter, hailed by some of the foremost art minds of her day as a prodigious, largely self-taught talent. Rather than devote herself entirely to the study and commercial competition of the art world, however, Trotter found herself torn between two desires—to see how far she could take her artistic talents, or to serve a “higher calling” as a humanitarian and Christian missionary worker in North Africa. The upcoming documentary Many Beautiful Things revolves around that difficult decision, which was presented to a woman whose talent may have been able to carry her to lifelong fame. You can see the first trailer below.
The film is directed by Laura Waters Hinson (As We Forgive) and produced by Hisao Kurosawa, the son of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. It premieres at the Manchester International Film Festival on July 11, and stars Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) as the voice of Lilias Trotter and John Rhys-Davies (Indiana Jones, The Lord of the Rings) as the voice of her mentor, English art critic John Ruskin.
Rhys-Davies is of course well known for a long Hollywood and stage acting career, highlighted by roles in the Indiana Jones franchise as the boisterous Egyptian Sallah and The Lord of the Rings trilogy as Gimli the dwarf. The Welsh actor here provides the voice of John Ruskin, the predominant art critic and art teacher of the period in England. Ruskin championed Trotter’s talents and attempted to persuade her to devote herself to the art world, with limited success. Rhys-Davies joined Paste via phone from his home on the Isle of Man to discuss his role in the film and Trotter’s importance in art history.
The conversation begins with small talk—Rhys-Davies rich, sonorous voice explaining that his home library has grown out of control: “I’m facing one of the great crises in a man’s life, when he comes home to reams and reams of books and has to choose either to build an extension on the home, or, horror of horrors, prune the books. I can’t bear the thought, but it may well happen.”
We also briefly discuss his role in the Indiana Jones series, with Rhys-Davies recalling the very different early scripts for Raiders of the Lost Ark: “It was just pages and pages of action descriptions and not much dialog at all.” Finally, talk turns to Many Beautiful Things.
Paste: You’re portraying Ruskin, who would have had a very highly respected opinion to bestow. What did he see in Lilias Trotter?
John Rhys-Davies: Well, Ruskin is a very complicated character, and a hugely important art critic. We’ve really lost the sense of how important he was to his times, because his work sort of fell off the map after the first world war.
But I think there is something rather marvelous about Ruskin and the relationship he had with Lilias. In ways, they absolutely complemented each other. She was absolutely a beautiful and serious young woman who regarded art with almost the same fervor Ruskin did. But she also had this extraordinary Victorian conscience that felt those who were privileged had a real responsibility to make the lives of the wretchedly poor a little better. And those she worked with truly were wretchedly poor, for the most part.
Paste: From what I’ve read, it sounds like he did his best to direct her attentions toward art, but it must have been a difficult decision for both of them.
John Rhys-Davies: It was. Ruskin himself straddled both of those paths. He was a great humanitarian as well. What he had was a real, genuine social conscience, and so did she. It’s ironic—there he is saying, “You must really focus on art because you’re so good as an artist but you wont get to the highest levels unless you become as ruthless and self-focused as any artist of genius must be.” And she is saying “You know, art is one of the ways we serve God.” He should have found that understandable, but of course he found it maddening. There is a great sense of anger and regret with that level of talent not being used to the fullest extent for someone in Ruskin’s position.
Paste: Trotter did continue with art through her journals and books written during her missionary work in Algeria, though?
John Rhys-Davies: Yes, although they never really came to a full boil, as it were. I take Ruskin’s assessment of her at face value. When you get to his championship of Lilias, I think he was probably right to say, “What you have here is really an extraordinary, first-rate talent.” It’s as Yeats said, “the intellect of man is forced to choose perfection of the life or of the work.” She does make the choice of perfection of life, which makes her one of those humble, noble, near-saints I suppose.”
Paste: What did you personally find engaging in her story?
John Rhys-Davies: Well, I am as proud of this as anything I’ve ever done. And I’ve only given voice to a man to characterize him a bit. In no way can I claim that this film is a product of my genius, but I’m still as proud of it as anything I’ve ever done. I think it’s a hugely important and interesting and compelling piece. It’s important because I believe we should understand how good an artist she truly was, and that she gave it all up. It relates to that perennial question: “What is the best way to employ our lives?” And are our choices mutually exclusive?
The film just has a filigree of grace about it that’s really marvelous.