Film review: Bright Star

Page 1

By Carla Ferreira
“Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art— / Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night [. . . .]” The opening lines of John Keats’s ethereal poem are splendid enough to make even the staunchest modernist swoon. Despite my deep-rooted allegiances to Whitman—a secret Keats fan himself—and later poets, I looked forward to viewing Bright Star, the 2009 biopic/love-story of one of the great English Romantics.

Cue the opening scene: a close-up of a needle stitching, stitching, stitching. Violins play in the background. Why are we looking so closely—and for so long—at this needle? Like much of the film, it is a scene that only makes sense later; throughout, this delay in knowledge always seems hardly worth the initial effect of awkward confusion. True to my English major sensibilities, I wrote in my notes, “Possible phallic symbol?”

But no—although let’s not rule it out altogether—it shows us sewing as fine art and craft, that of Fanny Brawne, Keats’s love interest. Fanny’s sewing serves as counterpart to Keats’s poetry writing and Jane Campion, Bright Star’s director/writer, makes sure that if the viewer understands nothing else in her film, this parallel is obvious. When Charles Brown criticizes her sewing, Fanny is quick to reply that her sewing earns her more money than the “scribblings” of him and Keats.

This retort is supposed to make us think, “Wow, Fanny is as strong-willed as she is quick-witted.” Now I believe that in literature and film, as in life, strong women are essential. But Fanny is no fierce heroine. Instead, it’s almost as though Campion were pointing at her the entire film, saying “Look, there! A strong woman!” but instead we are constantly presented with a poorly-developed character whose main pastimes appear to be pouting, languishing over Keats, and treating her younger siblings like servants. Abbie Cornish’s acting is lost on a script that makes Fanny appear like more of a petulant child than anything else.

However, at this point, you may be thinking less about Brawne and more about Brown—namely, who is this Charles Brown I mentioned earlier? Well, the film presents him in the same manner. While those more familiar with Keats might know who he is from the start, the rest of the audience will come to know him as the obnoxious friend/writing companion/occasional housemate of Keats. His continual sparring with Fanny will be the recurring distraction of the film.

Let me warn you now: if you choose to watch Bright Star because you are eager to see the love story of Brawne and Keats, you may in fact be settling down to watch the odd threesome of Brown, Brawne, and Keats.

In fact, the unexplained intensity of the hatred between Brown and Brawne gets played out almost as if there were romantic tension. But this is done so clumsily that it rather seems as though Campion toyed with the idea of Brown as a romantic competitor to Keats, so as to spice things up, but instead of committing to the concept, settles for creating awkward drama.
Case in point: midway through Bright Star, Keats angrily confronts Brown upon finding out that Fanny has received a valentine from him. Brown has no motive in sending the valentine besides annoying Fanny, but the whole ordeal gets blown up into one of the most—out of many—melodramatic scenes in the film. Brown informs Keats that Fanny “makes a religion of flirting,” and I suppose we are supposed to take this as an explanation for why Brown is so intent on harassing Fanny: he’s just trying to protect his dear friend Keats. Ah, yes, now it makes sense.

But why does it matter? Brown’s foppish behavior—painting him as an entirely one-dimensional character—receives time that could have been better spent developing Keats. Was Brown in fact a real-life impediment to the relationship between Keats and Fanny?
Perhaps, but the fact of the matter is that the facts don’t matter: either m

ke Brown a compelling enough character that he’s worthy of attention or take away the time spent exploring his character and redirect it towards Fanny and Keats. Paul Schneider, bedecked in a plaid jumper, delivers a spirited performance but ultimately is incapable of injecting interest into a character so poorly written.

Keats himself, in contrast to Brown, is the most likable character, despite some attempts to cast a world-weary Rochester/grumpy Darcy aura about him. He falls neatly into the trope of “charming troubled starving poet,” complete with brooding looks and lots of moments petting a cat near a fireplace. Ben Whishaw does his best to prevent Keats from devolving into pure emo-poet by gracing the role with some humour. His endeavours are helped in no small part by his impish grin and winsome gazes: for a dying poet, he’s quite the eye candy.

I have focused so much on the characters because it is difficult to ascertain a particular plot in this film and I do not mean this in any postmodernist sense. I mean that Bright Star, throughout much of its two hour length, makes it difficult to identify what we as viewers are supposed to care about. Mostly, we are distracted by how much Brawne and Brown hate each other.
The more or less overarching conflict is that Keats cannot marry Fanny because he has no steady income. Gradually, this becomes less important to Fanny’s sainted mother. After dealing with Fanny’s attempts to turn her room into a butterfly farm and then near-suicide over Keats, Mrs. Brawne probably figures that it’s best to consent to Fanny’s wishes before the whole house becomes some kind of butterfly sanctuary. By this point, though—spoiler alert!—Keats, in the fashion of most 19th-century poets who died young, is suffering from tuberculosis. His friends decide to sponsor a trip for him to go to Italy and he dies there, away from Fanny.

When Fanny receives the news of his death, Cornish’s acting is phenomenal—she depicts Fanny’s sorrow exquisitely, embodying the raw cold reality of genuine mourning. However, the countless instances of melodrama throughout the film steal the glory that this scene could have had. I wanted to feel Fanny’s pain here, but instead of catharsis, I was feeling saturated with the constant breakdowns I had already seen.

In short, if you must watch Bright Star, take measures to keep yourself entertained, much like if you were on a long road trip. For example, upon watching the film a second time, I found it helpful to keep track of how many times Fanny’s siblings are randomly out-of-place voyeurs. Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Samuel and Edie Martin as Toots often appear to have received the instructions to stand creepily in a scene where they have no place, just staring, always there. The final scene in which Fanny recites the poem, Bright Star in the winter woods could have been a scene of delicate beauty, for once showing her love for Keats without overstating it. But Samuel was too distracting, ever present as a blur in the distance. He is just standing in the woods, watching his sister read a poem from the dead Keats. Perhaps some redemption could be found if a horror movie spinoff were made featuring these two siblings.

Until then, if you love Keats, I would recommend re-reading some of his poetry over watching Bright Star. If you don’t love Keats, I’m not sure why you are reading this review, but I would recommend not misusing any more of your time by watching this film.

Carla Ferreira is a Newark, New Jersey native with a penchant for
studying in cities called Cambridge. After four years studying English and French at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she taught English to high school students in Bordeaux, France. Her year at Trinity Hall – University of Cambridge was spent mostly writing an MPhil dissertation on Walt Whitman, Jules Laforgue, and T. S. Eliot, but was also spent in part relearning how to ride a bike, taking napCarla Ferreiras in libraries, and knitting bookmarks for her course-mates. She is currently working as a teaching assistant in Los Angeles, California and hopes to eventually publish a book of poems. In the meantime, a few of her poems can be found in literary journals such as The Lascaux Review, Off the Coast, and Shot Glass Journal.

15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More
17.05.2018

The Byron effect

by Miranda Seymour Any study of the lives of Lord Byron’s wife and daughter points towards one inescapable conclusion: the enduring power of Byron’s personality. Annabella Milbanke married Byron in January 1815. Ada, born towards the end of their first turbulent year as a married couple, was only a few weeks old when Lady Byron […]

Read More
01.05.2018

Spring shoots and green peas: the Wordsworths and their kitchen garden

by Gareth Evans Following six months of settled living with his sister Dorothy, one May morning William Wordsworth left Dove Cottage with his brother John to walk through Yorkshire.  Separated from her brothers in early childhood only to be permanently reunited as adults, an understandably emotional Dorothy found ways of coping with what was clearly […]

Read More
16.04.2018

The Gravestone of John Keats: Romancing the Stone

by Ian Reynolds   John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five on February 23rd, 1821 and is buried at the Cemitero Acattolico—the so-called Protestant Cemetery in Rome (1). Two years later, in the early spring of 1823 his gravestone with epitaph was finally laid at his burial site. (2) Much has been documented about Keats’s […]

Read More
07.04.2018

The winners of the 2018 Wordsworth birthday poem competition

We had another wonderful set of entries this year, on the subject of ‘The child is father of the man’.  We’d like to thank Fiona Sampson, the poet and acclaimed author of The Girl who Wrote Frankenstein, for being this year’s judge, and for very kindly donating two copies of her book to the winner […]

Read More

Sex and Death: Vampires from Coleridge to Hammer

Page 1

By Barry Forshaw

Initially, several Gothic novels were infused with a certain Anglican perspective that (among other things) aligned the sinister influence of the Church of Rome with the locations where Catholicism reigned (notably France, Spain and Italy), concomitantly identified as fertile breeding ground for eldritch evil. A corollary of this was a certain fascination with the French Revolution (among such writers as Mary Wollstonecraft who was to give birth to the creator of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley) also provided much of the gruesome imagery (including copious bloodshed and severed heads).
The ‘threat from abroad’ scenario was an infinitely serviceable plot engine, using strategies similar to those that the golden age of crime fiction was later to do in England, a settled status quo is presented in order to be disrupted by a malign presence before order is wrested from chaos (the locus classicus here is Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Italy was often located as a source of potential corruption and decay; the notion of Il Bel Paese as a place in which the destruction of hapless Englishmen was wrought was still finding expression in the writings of Daphne du Maurier a century and a half later in such books as My Cousin Rachel (1951), with its dark, corrupting Italian influences. The latter even sports the metaphor of a ‘vampiric’ woman whose sexual involvement with an Englishman in Florence brings about his weakening and subsequent death.

Sexuality as a harbinger of destruction is very much the central notion of British vampire films, where the undead monster is often presented as a charismatic, sexually attractive figure) is also to be found in Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, notably in the beautiful and seductive figure of Geraldine — who also, of course, embodies the lesbian sexuality to be found in Sheridan le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ (1872). The latter has proved to be an almost boundless source of inspiration for many lesbian-themed horror films both foreign (Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness, 1971) and British – the Carmilla cycle that begins with The Vampire Lovers (1970).

But as well as producing the negative, destructive aspects that would be so serviceable and re-usable) for Gothic cinema, the age of romanticism (concurrent with the Gothic impulse), as well as drawing on the eldritch, might be said to also reflect the rational figure to be set against unspeakable evil – the avatar here would be Stoker’s Van Helsing, who would appear in a variety of guises and names throughout (for instance) the Hammer horror cycle.

Coleridge’s moody ‘Christabel’, however, with its encounter between the virginal innocent maiden of the title and the dark destructive succubus Geraldine, is actually something of a cornucopia of Gothic themes (not least the reference to ‘heaving breasts’). We are given the classic Gothic setting (in which darkness cloaks the evil impulses of the nonhuman characters, with an obbligato of animal noises, similar to those which will accompany Dracula and his ilk); there is also the channelling of unconscious impulses which was to prove so suggestive particularly in the 1950s innovations of the Hammer company, which allowed the studio’s writers and directors to deal with themes that would otherwise have been verboten, but which slipped by the censor as the settings and locales drew attention away from the often barely disguised libidinous impulses that powered the characters.

Geraldine in Coleridge’s poem is initially presented as a figure of light and contrasted with the dark woods in which she is discovered, apparently in distress after a brutal kidnapping. And as in so many subsequent British Gothic films, a naive protagonist is drawn into a monstrous web against which their lack of worldliness is no protection – a parallel here might be with Henry James’s innocent Americans abroad, unable to cope with the machinations of older — and possibly malign — Europeans (one might think here of the figure of Dracula, against whom his English victims are quite unable to cope — without the aid of another older, sager European figure).

However the vampirism of the poem remains nebulous, particularly when compared with Bram Stoker’s influential Dracula, in which the dead Prince of Darkness becomes a far more interesting figure than his historical antecedent Vlad the Impaler; the latter’s sadistic pleasures (notably dining surrounded by the tortured, stake-impaled bodies of his victims) is less interesting than Stoker’s character’s immortality and ability to transmogrify into a variety of animal forms. The sexual impulse of the novel is incarnated in the Count’s diaphanously-clad, ravenous brides who are denied their blood feast, and this can truly be seen as a sexual consummation. Such themes were later to be confronted head-on, notably in the films starring Christopher Lee. Whether or not Stoker was working out feelings about his browbeating employer, the celebrated actor Henry Irving (who is now seen as vampirising his much-abused employee, and who was cruelly dismissive of the latter’s attempts at writing) is beside the point – the impulses that gave birth to Dracula are perhaps less interesting than the myriad possibilities the character opened up for Gothic cinema, both in the United States and Great Britain. And Dracula’s progeny flourish to this day although the first cinematic incarnations of the vampire count did not involve British talent – it was to be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein creature which would be brought to murderous life by some eccentric and unorthodox British talents working in a foreign country.

From British Gothic Cinema by Barry Forshaw (Palgrave Macmillan)

Barry Forshaw is one of the UK’s leading experts on crime fiction and film. His other books include Sex and Film,  Nordic Noir, British Crime Film and Death in a Cold Climate. Other work: Euro Noir, the HRF Keating Award-winning British Crime Writing The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction and Italian Cinema. He writes for various newspapers and edits Crime Time.

15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More
17.05.2018

The Byron effect

by Miranda Seymour Any study of the lives of Lord Byron’s wife and daughter points towards one inescapable conclusion: the enduring power of Byron’s personality. Annabella Milbanke married Byron in January 1815. Ada, born towards the end of their first turbulent year as a married couple, was only a few weeks old when Lady Byron […]

Read More
01.05.2018

Spring shoots and green peas: the Wordsworths and their kitchen garden

by Gareth Evans Following six months of settled living with his sister Dorothy, one May morning William Wordsworth left Dove Cottage with his brother John to walk through Yorkshire.  Separated from her brothers in early childhood only to be permanently reunited as adults, an understandably emotional Dorothy found ways of coping with what was clearly […]

Read More
16.04.2018

The Gravestone of John Keats: Romancing the Stone

by Ian Reynolds   John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five on February 23rd, 1821 and is buried at the Cemitero Acattolico—the so-called Protestant Cemetery in Rome (1). Two years later, in the early spring of 1823 his gravestone with epitaph was finally laid at his burial site. (2) Much has been documented about Keats’s […]

Read More
07.04.2018

The winners of the 2018 Wordsworth birthday poem competition

We had another wonderful set of entries this year, on the subject of ‘The child is father of the man’.  We’d like to thank Fiona Sampson, the poet and acclaimed author of The Girl who Wrote Frankenstein, for being this year’s judge, and for very kindly donating two copies of her book to the winner […]

Read More

From stanza to screen: How a Keats poem is inspiring 21st-century film-makers

Page 1

By Suzie Grogan
In the twenty-first century it sometimes seems that only the things that are ‘up to date’ ‘relevant’, or ‘on trend’ matter. Our fast-paced lives leave little time for contemplation and today’s new technology is next year’s museum piece. We have to learn ‘mindfulness’ to appreciate the moment, drink in meaning and appreciate the sublime beauty of the planet.

So – contentious question – how can the Romantic imagination hope to ‘speak out loud and bold’ to a new generation, as Chapman’s Homer did to John Keats nearly 200 years ago?

As someone with a long-standing love of Keats’s poems and letters, it is an issue I contemplate quite regularly as I seek to encourage an appreciation of his work. Of course, each generation is in some way influenced by long dead forbears. Keats read widely in Spenser, Milton and Shakespeare for example, learning his craft through inspiration and imitation. Contemporary poetry speaks the language of the present day heart, taking new forms and perhaps breaking old rules; so can new creative and innovative methods inspire enjoyment of long dead poets in those who might never have considered them as having anything significant to say?

As I write regularly on Keats and his life on my blog, I am lucky enough to hear from those keen to share their own thoughts and have in the past year been contacted, on separate occasions, by two graphic novelists and two film-makers who have taken Keats’s poetry and exposed it to new treatments, testing its importance to today’s audience. Interestingly, all four have used the same poem – La Belle Dame Sans Merci – and although the graphic novels were fascinating, it was the films that most interested me. One is completed and ready to view, the other cast and ready to go, but still in need of funding. I thought I would find out why this poem had so caught the imagination of two independent film makers, and in the past few months have interviewed them both.
Christopher Smith began his career with Addictive TV, where he was Production Manager of the ITV1 series Mixmasters, the Optronica Festival at the British FiIm Institute and he has produced a wide range of experimental films. He has also been involved in the creation of award-winning ad campaigns for big brands but in 2012 he left the advertising industry to focus on film, launching the production company Modern. 2014 saw the release of his short film Arterial, based on La Belle Dame.


I asked Chris to tell me a little more about the background to the film, why he chose the location, and what it is about the poem that so inspired him:
I grew up in Essex which imprinted me with a lasting impression of the landscape. In constant view from my home was the huge Shell Oil refinery that features in this film, a twisted metal monster that sits between the mouth of the Thames and the overgrown hinterlands.

This clash of natural and synthetic and ancient and modern can be found all over this part of the world carved by the industrial and suburban spill of London. I’ve made a fair few brand and more experimental films, but for my first narrative film I wanted to explore not only this landscape, but the impact of such a landscape on its inhabitants.

I had always wanted to adapt ‘La Belle Dame…‘ and thought this was a great opportunity to do that in combination with exploring those themes. This poem itself evokes nature in a powerful way and has, over time been interpreted with multiple meanings. I decided to eschew dialogue and incorporate certain repeated motifs to give the entire film a feel of reverie.
Had he, I asked, experienced any negative responses to his treatment of a classic work?

The negative responses I have had (which are few luckily) were general – relating to the fact that I had updated the poem and explored (what the critic considered to be) my own themes into the poem. Or more specifically, relating to my casting of an actor that was too young, as the critic had previously interpreted the knight in the original poem to be older and more weary.
Chris has explored the audience response widely, on online forums and face to face. I have shown the film to a number of friends – poets and readers of poetry- who find the film visually stunning. Those who claim not to like poetry (and there are still some out there to be converted!) also found it powerful and didn’t need to read La Belle Dame to appreciate it.

The second film, entitled The Merciless Beauty, is in pre-production and will be made by film maker Michael Groom. The cast is in place, and the location settled. It will be filmed in the Lake District, a place I love and which Keats acknowledged as an environment that would nourish his poetry.

Michael’s approach seems quite different to that adopted for Arterial. Michael graduated from the University of York in 2003 and went straight into the film industry, working with Michael Winterbottom and other high profile directors. He has written and directed short films, most recently the award-winning The Selkie’s Lover (Georgina Strawson, Jason Langley, Shirley Henderson), which was shot entirely on location in Caithness in the far north of Scotland.

I asked him why he had chosen La Belle Dame:

I first studied Keats in secondary school and was instantly enchanted by his work. I studied him more intensely at university and the enchantment grew. LBDSM struck me as soon as I read it, during my A Levels, probably because of the archetype of the strange mysterious female; but more than this, I loved the Gothic tone and the vivid imagery and the fact it harkened back to those oral tradition fairy stories of old in which someone is spirited off to another realm.

He is updating the setting to the modern day, saying:

It’s as if what Keats wrote about happens cyclically and my story is just the most recent instance of it. The Gothic, medieval feel will still be there in the tone of the piece and the fact that the Beauty’s costume will have medieval influences.

Michael grew up in the Lakes and instantly envisaged the events of the poem to take place in the Lake District – from the very first line of the poem. He feels there is a link to Arthurian legend, as Carlisle has claims to be Camelot and Bassenthwaite Lake the lake from which the lady of the lake came. He is keen to draw on the paranormal belief that lakes and caves are portals to other realms and dimensions, and express that dream (or nightmare) like quality that pervades the poem.

He still needs about £1500 to ensure the film is made as he would like it but is determined it will happen in any event, his love of John Keats fuelling his ambition. ‘We have enough to make it more guerrilla style, which I’ll do if necessary’.

John Keats Guerrilla style – now there’s a thought.

It was really interesting to hear why two young men felt so drawn to Keats as a basis for their films. These are no amateurs, utilising high production values and ambitions for wider distribution, which I think they deserve.

Yes, La Belle Dame taps into the current focus on the supernatural in young adult fiction, and offers countless opportunities for interpretation in relation to gender roles and relationships. But surely it is more than that? To return to the original question; what can the romantic imagination, and specifically John Keats, offer to the twenty-first century psyche? Michael Groom sums it up well:

Keats is truly a poet of the senses and we’re still the sensual beings today that we were back then. He’s very spiritual, at least in my understanding, and I think he was a metaphysicist as well as a humanist and naturalist. He talks of moments of time and elevates seemingly everyday things into marvellous wonders, sometimes epically. I know many poets do this, but Keats does it on such a level that resonates with us still today.
_______________________________________________________________________
Suzie Grogan is a London-born professional writer and researcher, working in the fields of social and family history and mental health. Her first book Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Untangling lives affected by depression and anxiety was published in 2012 and her second, Shell Shocked Britain, will be published by Pen & Sword History in October 2014. She has two further commissions, including one on the life of an apprentice surgeon-apothecary in the early 19th century.Suzie Grogan
A lover of the written word in all its forms, Suzie has a popular blog at No wriggling out of writing and also presents a local radio show ‘Talking Books’ . Married with two children – one a philosopher, one a high jumper – she lives in Somerset but has her heart in the Lake District and London. Her long-standing passion for poetry, especially John Keats, has led to the wicked rumour that there are three people in her marriage….
www.suziegrogan.co.uk

15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

Read More
28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

Read More
14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

Read More
04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

Read More
17.05.2018

The Byron effect

by Miranda Seymour Any study of the lives of Lord Byron’s wife and daughter points towards one inescapable conclusion: the enduring power of Byron’s personality. Annabella Milbanke married Byron in January 1815. Ada, born towards the end of their first turbulent year as a married couple, was only a few weeks old when Lady Byron […]

Read More
01.05.2018

Spring shoots and green peas: the Wordsworths and their kitchen garden

by Gareth Evans Following six months of settled living with his sister Dorothy, one May morning William Wordsworth left Dove Cottage with his brother John to walk through Yorkshire.  Separated from her brothers in early childhood only to be permanently reunited as adults, an understandably emotional Dorothy found ways of coping with what was clearly […]

Read More
16.04.2018

The Gravestone of John Keats: Romancing the Stone

by Ian Reynolds   John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five on February 23rd, 1821 and is buried at the Cemitero Acattolico—the so-called Protestant Cemetery in Rome (1). Two years later, in the early spring of 1823 his gravestone with epitaph was finally laid at his burial site. (2) Much has been documented about Keats’s […]

Read More
07.04.2018

The winners of the 2018 Wordsworth birthday poem competition

We had another wonderful set of entries this year, on the subject of ‘The child is father of the man’.  We’d like to thank Fiona Sampson, the poet and acclaimed author of The Girl who Wrote Frankenstein, for being this year’s judge, and for very kindly donating two copies of her book to the winner […]

Read More

Film review: Pandaemonium

Page 1

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Esther Rutter Chateau de Chillon

15.07.2018

The enigma of Coleridge

by Edward Platten   When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence […]

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28.06.2018

Re-imagining the Wordsworths III: A host of daffodils, a host of words

by Lucy Stone   ‘It feels as if you’re, when you speak it, as if you’re dancing and swaying in the wind, as if the daffodils were’, one year ten pupil from Keswick School observed, when asked how she felt reading I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud for the sound project Re-Imagining the Wordsworths, a collaboration […]

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14.06.2018

Keats and Constable in Hampstead: Could they have met?

by Don Oldham In the summer of 1819 a moderately successful landscape painter and his ailing wife took a small cottage in Hampstead, then a village to the north of London. The couple were looking for more amenable summer surroundings than their house in Charlotte Street, central London offered, hoping this would contribute to an […]

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04.06.2018

'A deep Romantic chasm': exploring the valley where Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan

by Peter Fiennes   It interests me, the idea that the spirit of a person lingers in a place long after they are gone. You can feel them in their homes, soon after they’ve died (or after they’ve left – we don’t have to kill them off…), although you could say that what we’re sensing […]

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17.05.2018

The Byron effect

by Miranda Seymour Any study of the lives of Lord Byron’s wife and daughter points towards one inescapable conclusion: the enduring power of Byron’s personality. Annabella Milbanke married Byron in January 1815. Ada, born towards the end of their first turbulent year as a married couple, was only a few weeks old when Lady Byron […]

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01.05.2018

Spring shoots and green peas: the Wordsworths and their kitchen garden

by Gareth Evans Following six months of settled living with his sister Dorothy, one May morning William Wordsworth left Dove Cottage with his brother John to walk through Yorkshire.  Separated from her brothers in early childhood only to be permanently reunited as adults, an understandably emotional Dorothy found ways of coping with what was clearly […]

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16.04.2018

The Gravestone of John Keats: Romancing the Stone

by Ian Reynolds   John Keats died in Rome aged twenty-five on February 23rd, 1821 and is buried at the Cemitero Acattolico—the so-called Protestant Cemetery in Rome (1). Two years later, in the early spring of 1823 his gravestone with epitaph was finally laid at his burial site. (2) Much has been documented about Keats’s […]

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07.04.2018

The winners of the 2018 Wordsworth birthday poem competition

We had another wonderful set of entries this year, on the subject of ‘The child is father of the man’.  We’d like to thank Fiona Sampson, the poet and acclaimed author of The Girl who Wrote Frankenstein, for being this year’s judge, and for very kindly donating two copies of her book to the winner […]

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