by Esther Rutter
Anyone who is even faintly familiar with the major events in the lives of Wordsworth and Coleridge will have a field day watching Julian Temple’s quasi-biopic Pandaemonium. I recommend inviting your literary-inclined friends round for an evening of riotous entertainment, watching the film whilst taking part in the following themed drinking game which embodies the ‘spirit of the age’ and gets you through the film’s 125 minutes without spiralling into artistic despair and literary indignation:
- Challenge your guests to each bring a beverage inspired by Romantic literature. Suggestions could include: Rime of the Ancient Grand Marnier, Hartley Wallbanger, or even Sex on the Bysshe.
- Line up your beverages within easy reach of the screen, along with plenty of snacks to soak up the alcohol. With revolution in mind, and tongue firmly in cheek, how about some revolutionary biscuits? – Garibaldis and Bourbons should be first on your list.
- The rules are: Drink every time you spot an anachronism or gross misappropriation of historical events. Eat a biscuit every time a government agent appears to spy on a revolutionary writer.
- Drunk on inaccuracies and high on sugar, plot the revolution (or even just the film) anew with your inebriated acquaintances.
Of course, this is all in jest – but you have to hope that the film was made in this spirit too. The major questions of historical accuracy and authentic portrayal of characters and events have already been dealt with at length by the Guardian’s John Sutherland when the film first emerged. It would be tedious for me to simply list all the travesties of inaccuracy and character assassinations; this is really a film which attempts to posit Coleridge as the true –though flawed – genius of the Romantic age, portraying Wordsworth as a jealous power-hungry snitch, Byron as a foppish social commentator à la Russell Brand, and Dorothy Wordsworth as a rude and prematurely maddened bossy boots with a predilection for ill-advised romantic attachments. The characters verge on caricature and the past is awkwardly melded with images from the present (STC on the London Eye is a particular low point). High art it ain’t.
But the trouble with Pandaemonium is that you can’t simply dismiss it as a bad work of fiction. It is underpinned by just enough instances from the lives of Coleridge and Wordsworth to be partly plausible: Coleridge and Wordsworth really did create Lyrical Ballads together in the Quantocks in the late 1790s, Coleridge really did write ‘Frost at Midnight’ inspired by the birth of his son Hartley, and the composition of ‘Kubla Khan’ really was interrupted by the infamous ‘person from Porlock’ (although I think this is the first time that Wordsworth has been suggested as that person). It is also a rare example of a film which details the process of literary composition (other notable examples are Jane Campion’s brilliant Bright Star and the popular Shakespeare in Love), and for that alone it is to be commended. It falls between the two stools of fantasy and biography, and as such it gives the discerning viewer a bit of a genre headache – is it simply too inaccurate to be trusted, but it does contain a few kernels of fact.
Instead, the film seems to be an experiment in cinematic biofiction, a curious genre that takes people and places from real life but shapes them in a new image through fantasy dialogue and narrative. Could it even be viewed more as a kind structured reality, a literary prototype of shows like Made in Chelsea and The Only Way is Essex, in the way it melds fantasy and reality? Like them, it isn’t critically acclaimed, but both challenge what we trust to be ‘real’ and what we perceive as ‘truth’. As an aside, Dorothy Wordsworth is portrayed by Emily Woof, the daughter of the foremost authority on Dorothy Wordsworth, Pamela Woof. Whilst one can imagine the horror of the academic at the inaccuracies of the film, one does have to marvel at life and art’s continued intertwining.
But is the film faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of the work of those early Romantics? Let’s look to that great manifesto for the Romantic movement, the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, penned by Wordsworth during the time shown in Pandaemonium:
“The principal object…was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them… in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.”
Does Pandaemonium use incidents from real life, in accessible language, imaginatively portrayed? Yes, yes it absolutely does. Does it encourage its audience to consider aspects of human nature and what drives people creatively, whether it be inspiration, opiates, jealously, or companionship? Again, yes. The only trouble with the film is that is it just doesn’t do it very well. Their lofty aims are to be applauded, but the film fails on its execution. And in that, perhaps, they share something with those first efforts of Wordsworth and Coleridge – without the Preface mentioned above, the Lyrical Ballads poorly received and misunderstood by its first audience. Perhaps someone needs to go back and help Julian Temple and Frank Cottrell Boyce to hone their ideas, place them within a tangible and relevant context, and for goodness sake give Dorothy something other than that dreadful leather jacket to wear.
Esther Rutter is the Education Development Manager at the Wordsworth Trust, where she introduces schools and families to the life and works of the Romantic poets. She also edits the life writing blog Discriminating Brevity and contributes to OxfordDictionaries and Oxford Centre for Life-Writing. She has a soft spot for mountains, beer festivals, and literary ne’er-do-wells.