Many Beautiful Things lives up to its title. With lush visuals from the English countryside, the deserts of North Africa, and the watercolors of its subject Lilias Trotter, the latest from filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson pleases the eye while asking questions of the heart. If Trotter’s name sounds unfamiliar to your ears, you are far from alone. Her work never even hung in a gallery as far as we can tell, but Trotter’s lack of lasting fame was to a large extent a chosen obscurity. Around that choice Waters Hinson centers a documentary that recently was warmly received by a standing room only crowd of well over 500 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
For a couple of decades now, our collective eyes have fixated on which of the dozens of hopefuls desperately pursuing celebrity status would be deemed the next American Idol, The Apprentice, Top Chef, Last Comic Standing, America’s Next Top Model, The Voice, The Biggest Loser, The Bachelor or the final Survivor. Trotter was an attractive young and single twenty-something faced with a very different quandary. With the help of a mother who might fit in with the pushy pageant parents of today, the talents of young Lilias caught the eye of John Ruskin, the Victorian era’s most influential critic. What Simon Cowell has been to pop culture in the early twenty-first century, Ruskin was to the art world in the latter half of the nineteenth. Ruskin had the wealth, connections, and a respected name that could launch one to artistic stardom, and his desire to see Trotter fully dedicated to art (and to him) neared the level of obsession. In her he saw the potential for greatness, and as Many Beautiful Things vividly illustrates, this belief was not without reason.
Trotter, though, felt called to pursuits she deemed higher than high art—seeking out the prostitutes of London, offering Christ and more legitimate job skills through the nascent YWCA movement at a time when the “C” still very much meant something. Feeling neglected, Ruskin asked, “Do you ever go to see people except naughty people?” Trotter had been previously been a regular visitor to Brantwood, Ruskin’s country estate, and the two would continue to correspond for some 20 years, but she ultimately refused to give herself to the task that Ruskin desired. Not that she ever set her brush aside completely, Trotter illustrated personal journals as well as a number of inspirational books that she also authored.
Filmgoers follow Trotter, voiced by Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey, as she ponders her choice before setting off resolutely down the path of self-sacrifice. The call to serve would eventually bring her across the Mediterranean to the shores of the Arab world, where without institutional support, she and a small band of friends attempted to bring the love of Christ to a foreboding but beautiful land. To some, Trotter’s decades among the Muslims might be viewed as a derelict decision that denied the world a great artist while accomplishing little else. The acts of kindness that the never-married Trotter showed to the harem women of Algiers and the mutually respectful dialogue she established with Sufi mystics in the desert led to neither mass conversions nor a dramatic martyrdom, but Trotter deemed her life a full one. The filmmaker, while never demeaning the value of the possibilities she left behind, seems to agree.
Director Waters Hinson, who won the student film Oscar for her depiction of post-genocidal Rwanda in As We Forgive and has since highlighted the lives of urban street vendors in Dog Days, shows continuing maturity in her most complex production yet. Animations of Trotter’s art and actor portrayals of those long gone that could have been overdone instead add depth and texture, as does a delicate soundtrack from Sleeping at Last. Among the living we meet Miriam Rockness, the homemaker turned Trotter detective and biographer whose three decades of work kept the flickering memory of Lilias’s work and choices alive. And we should all be thankful that she did. Though best seen in a theater, Many Beautiful Things becomes available for download and DVD on March 8th and is worth watching on any sized screen. In an age where, from showbiz to the selfie, our culture bows before the god of recognition, it is worth experiencing the story of one who answered the call of her Father rather than the call of fame.John Murdock is a professor at the Handong International Law School and exists online at johnmurdock.org.