Pandaemonium
          

          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.


                                  Rating:                 B+
                                  MPAA Rating:        PG-13 for drug content
                                  Running time:       123 mins.
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.