A film teacher of mine once asked a class if they could name the dwarf
without a beard and nearly all of us, of course, said "Dopey." Well, that was
the correct answer, only if you consider what was put on the silver screen by
Walt Disney and his animators. In point of fact, if one examines any of the
multitude of versions of Snow White, the seven little guys are just as likely
to not have facial hair as to have mustaches and beards.
I bring this up because there's been a lot of concern and discussion
over truth in historical or biographical films. Movies are such a powerful
instrument that they can alter the perceptions of audiences and make them
believe what they've seen in a theater must be the truth. When Oliver Stone
released JFK, conspiracy theorists had a ball. With PEARL HARBOR, there
was concern over some of the various images (as the attack occurred early
on a Sunday morning, it wasn't likely children would be out playing baseball,
for example). Undoubtedly, there will be those who will take offense at the
depiction of the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and, especially, William
Wordsworth in PANDAEMONIUM. Indeed, one of my initial reactions
was that the portrait of Wordsworth didn't jive with my memories of the
man I studied in college. But then I had to remind myself: It's just a movie.
Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (THE CLAIM, HILARY & JACKIE)
was taking the same sort of dramatic liberties that Peter Shaffer did when
he wrote AMADEUS. If one takes the story on that level, it's a fascinating
examination of the creative process and the petty jealousies that can come
between friends. (As the saying -- which has been attributed to various
people from La Rouchefoucauld to Gore Vidal -- goes: "It's not enough that
I succeed; my friends must fail.")
The film opens in the early 19th Century at a time when Coleridge
(Linus Roache) is estranged from Wordsworth (John Hannah) and has more
or less descended into a permanent opium-addicted state. The pair are
to be reunited at a dinner party which the very shaky Coleridge has agreed
to attend. The creme of literary society is there, from Byron (Guy Lankester)
to Robert Southey (Samuel West). It becomes too much for Coleridge and
in a stunning coup de l'oeil, he runs out of the room and into the past.
(Director Julien Temple has clearly worshipped at the shrine of Ken Russell,
but more on that later.)
Transporting the characters and the audience back to 1795, the film
really kicks into gear with what purports to be the initial encounter between
these two literary giants. Following the American and then the French
Revolutions, the rise of Napoleon and the nascent social changes due
to industrialization, England was in turmoil. While the political and societal
shifts are broadly sketched, PANDEAMONIUM incorporates that fervor.
There is something anarchic in Temple's directorial approach. (One might
argue it's a residual effect of his documentary on the Sex Pistols,
THE FILTH AND THE FURY, but it is a spirit that has infused most of
his work.) The helter skelter approach, though, works far better in this
case than when Ken Russell imposed a similar framework on the lives of
creative folks in a series of films in the 1960s and 70s (e.g., ISADORA,
THE MUSIC LOVERS, VALENTINO and his own take on the gentlemen
in question, the two-part television special CLOUDS OF GLORY).
Coleridge is depicted as an ideologue, first espousing the freedoms
fought for in the United States and France and then positing the creation
of a utopian society (he initially suggests America, but settles for rural
England). He and his wife Sara (Samantha Morton, who has little to do but
look voluptuous -- she was pregnant in real-life when she filmed the part)
set up house and are soon joined by Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy
(an extraordinary turn by Emily Woof). Naturally tensions arise: Dorothy
is drawn to Coleridge but she tells him she'll be content to possess his
intellect and not his body. is shown to be jealous of the their closeness
and there are intimations of incest (some Wordsworth biographers have
argued that unusual closeness of these siblings would give rise to it).
What pushes Wordsworth over the edge is Coleridge's talent. The two
writers had agreed to collaborate on a book of poems to be called
Lyrical Ballads and published anonymously. While Wordsworth is seen
struggling to complete a poem, Coleridge imbibes laudanum (an opiate)
and pens "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." It's during these sequences
that Temple invokes Ken Russell by depicting the poet's hallucinations.
These sequences are among the most visually stunning in the film and
probably come the closest to capturing the actual act of creating a literary
work as is possible. Temple doesn't go as overboard as Russell did --
although he comes close.
What will trouble scholars is that the men depicted are not
representative of who they were in life. Wordsworth is relegated to a
role akin to Salieri in AMADEUS (the jealous, lesser talent) while many
consider him as much of an innovator as Coleridge. The many other
liberties in these men's lives (too numerous to detail here) will also
give those familiar with them pause.
But if one is to judge PANDAEMONIUM its own merits as a work
of fiction, for the most part it succeeds. Cottrell Boyce's script is a bit
sketchy and presumes that the viewer has more than a cursory knowledge
of the poetry and lives of the two main figures. As he did in HILLARY & JACKIE,
the screenwriter examines how relationships are destroyed when one of
the pair seemingly has more talent than the other. It's not a new theme
(think Cain and Abel in the bible) but it is here handled with skill.
Temple's direction keep things moving and while his visual sense
may not be as outre as Ken Russell's or as imaginative as Terry Gilliam's,
he does manage to put the viewer into the mind of Coleridge. Both the
sequences wherein the poet imagines the tale of the Ancient Mariner and
the world of "Kublai Khan" are stunning. (Special kudos have to go to
production designer Laurence Dorman and costumer Annie Symons and
director of photography John Lynch, although the latter's employment of
available light doesn't always work. He perhaps should have studied the
landmark cinematography of John Alcott in BARRY LYNDON to see how
it could have been done.)
Temple also was mostly fortunate in his casting decisions. Linus
Roach is perfect as Coleridge. The actor captures the author's frenetic
approach to life and his dissipation under the influence of opium is
amazing. Similarly, Emily Woof is quite memorable as Dorothy, a vibrant
and intelligent woman who also gradually descends into madness.
Standouts among the supporting cast include Samuel West, Andy Serkis,
Dexter Fletcher and Emma Fielding (as Wordsworth wife Mary).
Samantha Morton is something of a disappointment, mostly because
the script gives her so little to do. The real problematic turn is from
John Hannah. His Wordsworth is dyspeptic and generally unlikable. It's
usually the case that the villain of the piece is more interesting than
the hero, but not in the vision of these filmmakers. Both are clearly
more sympathetic to Coleridge to the extent that Wordsworth comes
across as something of a crashing bore. Hannah doesn't have the natural
charisma or charm to pull the part off which is the sort of role Jeremy
Irons has made his career doing.
PANDAEMONIUM isn't the sort of film that will attract the masses,
as much as Temple may wish. His notion that these writers were the rock
stars of their day is perhaps a solid one, but unlike the Rolling Stones or
U2, the Romantic poets have a limited appeal. Those who do seek out this
film can experience something unique and thought-provoking; those who
don't won't know what they are missing.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for drug content
Running time: 123 mins.
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.