Painting by numbers

Film - Philip Kerr wishes this reverential life of fiery Frida Kahlo was less well behaved

When I was a child, my parents bought me a paint-by-numbers kit. This included two brushes and 90 or so pre-mixed numbered paints each corresponding to a numbered space on an accompanying board. Inspired by a box-top that proclaimed "Every Man a Rembrandt", I dipped and daubed until I had produced a delightful rendering of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. Like my young self, President Dwight D Eisenhower was a fan of these kits and, during his term in office, devoted a whole wall in the White House West Wing to the display of kit-paintings completed by himself and members of his administration.

I'm not sure if Craft Master ever included works by the artist Frida Kahlo in its catalogue of subjects, but somehow I think not. Filling in the space between Frida's eyebrows with a brushload of number 69 (Bull Dyke Black) would only have made the postwar middle class feel uncomfortable. After all, even Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing Act II, Scene Five) suggests that there is something dodgy about women whose eyebrows are joined together, and it's not so long since hypertrichositic women were in danger of being burnt at the stake. Julie Taymor's film does nothing to suggest that we should revise that ancient superstition, for Frida is depicted here as a ballsy little witch, which, by all accounts, is pretty much what she was like.

I say Julie Taymor's film, but really the film belongs to Salma Hayek, who puts aside her eyebrow tweezers and her Philips Ladyshave to play the little Mexican painter. Apparently, it's a project she has been nursing for a long time and certainly she throws herself into it with considerable gusto, although it seems to me that Hayek draws the line, so to speak, at playing the part with the moustache. Frida's own tache is quite clearly visible in several of her self- portraits - it's one of the things that makes her pictures so arresting - but there's no sign of it on Hayek's top lip. (Could not she have borrowed the thin, Brazilian strip of a whisker worn by Leonardo DiCaprio in Gangs of New York?)

Anyway, wearing a variety of brightly coloured shawls, and Frida's trademark unibrow, if not the moustache, Hayek is more or less a dead-ringer for the Mexican (it probably helps that she is Mexican) and the film is at least cosmetically faithful to the events of Kahlo's difficult life. But it fails to penetrate the passion and ferocity of a woman who sought to fathom her own soul so vividly in paintings such as the one in which she gives birth to herself, like something out of a novel by Gabriel GarcIa Marquez. And, as is often the way with film projects that have been around for a long time, this one has had so many writers, including Hayek's boyfriend Ed Norton (who appears here as Nelson Rockefeller), that the film lacks any clear single vision of who Frida Kahlo was and what she was about.

Instead, it ticks off the many interesting events in her life - the marriage to the painter Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), the tram crash that left her a near cripple and unable to bear children, the lesbianism, the affair with Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), Trotsky's murder with an ice-pick, the gangrenous toes (very unconvincing) requiring amputation - like a Miramax bookkeeper conducting a stock-take of her life's more important scenes.

True, the film is well shot, and attractive to look at - there are some very fine scenes of the paintings coming to life - but pedestrian, Citizen Smith/Up the Revolution-style dialogue and Blue Peter characterisations do little to alter the overall impression that this is the Craft Master, film-by-numbers version of Frida's story. But for the lesbian nudity, the film has the feel of something made for cable TV.

This movie is much too well-behaved, too obsessed with the fabulous look of Frida to do her justice as a real person, and I'm afraid that I wished for a less reverential, more iconoclastic hand than Taymor's to convey the gravitas and soul of Kahlo. Doing anyone's full life in less than two hours is always a challenge, and Taymor's direction reminded me most of one of those Ken Russell biopic movies of the mid-1970s (Lisztomania or Valentino): despite being beautiful to look at, with lots of breasts and a great deal of camp-suggested libertinism, ultimately this was a very boring film indeed. Just 20 minutes into the picture and I was already wishing that Frida was dead. Ghastly Mexican accents, like something from the recent version of The Mask of Zorro starring Catherine ("a million quid is nothing to us") Zeta-Jones, only served to play up the phoniness of a picture about someone who was, after all, the real thing - a talented female artist. I very much wanted to like this picture but didn't, and that's as honest as the skin between my eyebrows.

Frida (18) is on general release