The subtitle of Fur: An Imaginary Portrait Of Diane Arbus hints at a tantalizing flight of fancy, a path around the staid restrictions of a biopic that might actually reveal bold insights into the mind of a mysterious, eccentric photographer. To their credit, director Steven Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson, who previously collaborated on 2002's overrated Secretary, make a genuine effort to do just that, casting Arbus' artistic coming of age as a haunting Beauty And The Beast-like fable. But as with Secretary, the film's fantasies are more labored and oppressive than liberating; they run up against the filmmakers' conception of Arbus as a bored housewife who opens up to an inspiring underworld of outcasts and freaks. Though Nicole Kidman's Arbus greets these discoveries with a flare in her eye, the film's muted tone stifles her excitement, all without ever suggesting how Arbus would eventually take her own life.
After a brief prologue at a nudist camp, the opening finds Arbus an obedient yet emotionally fragile housewife and mother from a privileged background; she shows some discomfort as second fiddle to her husband, a commercial photographer played by Ty Burrell. Eager to branch out, with her husband's full support, Arbus initially pokes around the city in an effort to find her artistic voice, but discovers her true inspiration much closer to home. Intrigued by the upstairs neighbor, a mystery recluse who obscures his face in a burlap mask, Arbus finds a gentle, intellectually simpatico man who happens to be covered head-to-toe in fur, due to a rare genetic condition. Played in a soulful turn by Robert Downey Jr., who expresses himself mainly through his eyes and his deep-timbred voice, he introduces Arbus to the malformed subjects that would give her work notoriety.
Arbus' point of view on her subjects has been a source of eternal controversy, with some charging that her photographs are clinical and exploitative, little more than artfully composed grotesquerie. Fur offers a retort to that criticism by imagining her connection—first curious, then romantic—to Downey and to the outcasts whose beauty only she can appreciate. Shainberg nicely draws Arbus and the audience deeper and deeper into the unknown and exotic, but he too is guilty of a certain amount of clinical detachment. Fur is that rare movie that's too understated, so quiet and deliberate that it effectively buries consuming passions.