The Laureate


Robert Graves has more than Claudius on his mind.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Gravitas) Laura Haddock, Dianna Agron, Tom Hughes, Fra Fee, Julian Glover, Patricia Hodge, Timothy Renouf, Christien Anholt, Indica Watson, Edwin Thomas, Meriel Hinsching, Edward Bennett, Paulette P. Williams, Orlando James, Jamie Newall, Dee Pearce, Daniel Drummond, Ruth Keeling. Directed by William Nunez

 

Robert Graves was one of the greatest writers in England during the Twentieth century. He was renowned for writing classic historical novels (most notably, I, Claudius) but also for being a noted translator of ancient texts and a lauded poet as well.

But in the latter part of the Jazz age, in 1928, Graves (Hughes) was a man suffering from severe PTSD that was a leftover from the First World War (he was wounded so gravely at the Battle of the Somme that he was listed as dead, although he obviously clearly astonished the expectations of the field surgeons and survived). Suffering from writer’s block, he is cheered on by his wife Nancy Nicholson (Haddock), a progressive woman for her time. He is also adored by his daughter Catherine (Watson) who is still young enough to worship her parents.

But when Graves reads the poetry of American Laura Riding (Agron), he feels a kinship between them. Nancy suggests that they invite the American to their rural cottage World’s End to live with them, and Laura accepts.

At first, things seem to be going well. Laura awakens the muse in Graves. Catherine adores her and Nancy embraces her as a sister. But soon, things take a turn for the sexual. Owing to Roberts’ condition, the sex life between the couple has been on hold an Laura at first seems happy to see to Nancy’s needs. But then she sees to Robert, and soon they are not just a couple, but a trinity. And when Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs (Fee) is added to the mix, jealousy begins to rear its ugly head, leading to tragedy…and scandal.

The films is a fictional take on an actual historical incident, and while there are some liberties taken with the facts (although Graves is depicted as suffering from writer’s block, it was nonetheless one of his most fertile periods as a poet) the main parts of the story are pretty much as seen here.

Like many British films, the style is very mannered, so much so that I was reminded of the Merchant-Ivory films of the Nineties – fortunately, in a good way. It helps that the three main leads – Haddock, Hughes and Agron – are extremely capable and turn in thrilling performances here. That’s a good thing because they do get the lion’s share of the screen time, although Fee when he turns up about two thirds of the way into the film, is also mesmerizing.

Part of the problem is that other than Graves, most of the character here are given little depth. The depiction of his PTSD can be a little bit over-the-top but considering the horror he lived through it is quite understandable. Riding is depicted as being severely narcissistic and manipulative, which seems to be a bit one-sided, as contemporary accounts of her also paint her as delightfully humorous and self-deprecating. In fact, humor is sorely lacking in the film overall; anyone who has ever read Graves will tell you that the man has a singular wit and an affection for the absurd.

It is somewhat ironic that the movie, in portraying a pair of women who were for their day quite progressive, doesn’t deign to give them much character development. I would have liked to have gotten to know Nicholson better; she seems to have had the patience of a saint here, and she most certainly had artistic ambitions of her own, many of which came to fruition after she divorced Graves.

In that sense the film might be deemed disappointing and I suspect lovers of Graves will probably be the ones most caught in disappointment, but it definitely has strong points that far outweigh the weak. The complex relationships between the three (and later, four) participants are interesting, and the production values are actually quite solid for a film that had a relatively small budget. And Agron gives a tremendous performance here, one that cinema buffs won’t want to miss. All in all, a very strong film to start out the new year.

REASONS TO SEE: A portrait of a deeply wounded soul preyed upon by a deeply narcissistic woman. Strong performances from the three leads. Recalls the Merchant-Ivory films of the 90s in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The characterizations are paid scant attention to, particularly in the case of the women.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality, adult themes and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although only one child is shown here, Graves and Nicholson actually had four children during the period the movie covers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Agatha
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
What Do We See When We Look Up At the Sky?

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Adrift in Soho


Soho is a world of light, and fog and shadow.

(2019) Drama (RandomOwen Drake, Caitlin Harris, Chris Wellington, Emily Seale-Jones, Angus Howard, Lauren Harris, Olly Warrington, William Chubb, William Jessop, Martin Calcroft, Warwick Evans, Anthony Burrows, Hayley Considine, Adei Bundy, Lara Graham, Luke Hicks, Tori Hope, Stella Lock, Mama Manneh, Mogs Morgan, Santiago Mosquera, Sandrea Simons.. Directed by Pablo Behrens

 

Neighborhoods have their own soul, their own character. Often they aren’t easily defined in a sentence or two, but some neighborhoods are remarkably easy to characterize.

Soho in the late 1950s was a place where drunks, dreams and would-be Bohemians hung out. While America was in the throes of the Beat Generation, Soho was London’s own heartbeat. Harry Preston (Drake) has arrived there from the provinces, wet behind the ears, hoping to write the book he knows will Change Everything. Maybe along the way, he might get laid.

He meets all sorts of characters, including the womanizing James Compton-Street (Wellington), the pretty American exchange student Doreen (Harris), radical New Cinema documentarians Jo (Seale-Jones) and Marcus (Howard), and The Count (Chubb), a literary patron. Jo and Marcus are making a documentary about Soho, but whereas Marcus is practical (he finances their efforts by shooting blue movies at local strip clubs), Jo is much more of a purist and leaves him to team up with fellow filmmaker Marty (Warrington).

The novel this is based on is something of a cult novel in the UK from original Angry Young Man Colin Wilson, who lived in Soho during the period depicted in the films. He eventually moved to the country but wrote this novel in 1961 as a kind of farewell to arms. I haven’t read the book myself, but I get the sense that it is not an easy read. So, too, is the movie based on it not an easy watch.

The movie could have used a little more of a budget to give it some scope and a better sense of place and time, but that’s not really something within the control of the filmmakers. The cast does a pretty decent job, particularly Wellington who displays a bonhomie and flair that is missing from the other characters; most of them are kind of flat and uninteresting, although the actors do the best they can. It doesn’t help that the characters spend an inordinate amount of time philosophizing about a fictional illness called “Soho-itis,” which is never fully explained in the film which is amazing, considering how much time they spend talking about it.

However, this is a gorgeous movie to look at – cinematographer Martin Kobylarz makes wonderful use of light, shadows and fog to give the viewer some compelling images. The mood is augmented by a jazzy score replete with hits from the era that are a bit on the obscure side, but fit the film perfectly.

The movie is actually a rather intelligent one; the problem is that too many of the characters are little more than stick drawings. I would have appreciated less rumination and more character development. Incidentally, viewers who prefer a more linear narrative may have some issues here; the movie is told essentially as a series of vignettes that sometimes don’t connect together well or form a really cohesive story. Still, I found that the movie held my interest for it’s nearly two hour length, which is more than I can say for other movies with higher aspirations than this one.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is exceptional.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a bit aimless at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author Colin Wilson based all of the characters on people he met while he lived in Soho in the 1950s, although their names were all changed with the exception of Ironfoot Jack. The story itself is said to be based on something the author experienced or knew of first-hand.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Postcards from London
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
2040

The Vow


 

The Vow

Ghost much?

(2012) Romance (Screen Gems) Channing Tatum, Rachel McAdams, Sam Neill, Jessica Lange, Scott Speedman, Jessica McNamee, Wendy Crewson, Tatiana Maslany, Lucas Bryant, Joey Klein, Joe Cobden, Jeananne Goossen, Dillon Casey, Shannon Barnett. Directed by Michael Sucsy

 

We think we know what path we’re on; we often have our lives mapped out, our expectations firmly in mind. We know where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. Then, life throws us a big-ass curveball.

That’s what happened to Paige (McAdams) and Leo (Tatum), a couple of young Bohemian newlyweds living in Chicago. He owns a recording studio and she is a sculptress. They are blissfully in love – and one winter’s night a truck smashes into their car from behind, propelling her through a windshield (and let that be a lesson to those who don’t wear their seatbelts) and puts her in a medically sustained coma while the swelling of her brain heals.

When she wakes up, she has no memory of the last five years – including the four in which she met and married Leo. In her mind she’s still in Law School at Northwestern and engaged to Jeremy (Speedman). Leo is a complete stranger to her.

What Leo has to tell her is that she left Law School, matriculating at the Chicago School of Art, left Jeremy to go find herself and these decisions had estranged her from her parents, Bill (Neill) – a lawyer himself – and Rita (Lange) as well as her sister Gwen (McNamee) who is to get married herself shortly.

Leo’s task is to hope that her memory returns and to do what he can to jog her memory back but failing that, to get her to fall in love with him a second time. But does Paige really want to – and more importantly, is that really the key to her happiness?

The last question is really the most intriguing one and what lies at the crux of the movie. As Leo tries his darnedest to help Paige find her way back to him, she grows more and more unhappy and frustrated. Leo is eventually forced to face the fact that the woman he loved may well have been killed in the accident, her body filled with a completely new person. It’s a heartrending conundrum.

And the heartbreaking thing is that this is based on something that actually happened – to Kim and Krickitt Carpenter. Although the events of the film were Hollywood-ized somewhat, the basics all happened.  In their case, part of their written marriage vows are what convinced Krickitt to stay with Kim. While Paige sees her vows written on a menu of the Cafe they both frequent, you never get the sense that those vows were a deciding factor. Also, the Carpenters are both devout Christians which never shows up in this film.

All that aside it’s still a decent enough movie. Released in time for Valentine’s Day, it is most definitely Cinema of the Heart. Tatum, not the most expressive of actors, is actually not so bad here; he can definitely do earnest and gets a lot of chance to show off that particular emotion. McAdams is very pretty but hasn’t been challenged much in her film roles; she really isn’t here as her character is mostly befuddled and frustrated. Rarely does Paige really get to express what’s going on inside her head, which the movie might have benefitted from.

Neil who is doing some of the best work of his career in Fox’s “Alcatraz,” has a role that recalls elements of his first major film role as the grown-up anti-Christ in Omen III: The Final Conflict. Bill is ruthless, suspicious of a son-in-law he has no relationship with (as the movie unfolds we discover that Bill and Rita hadn’t met Leo in the flesh until visiting their stricken daughter in the hospital) and very manipulative. He’s a bit of a snake oil salesman and Neil does that kind of thing very well.

Lange is one of the best actresses America has ever produced and she gets a chance to show off her abilities in one very moving monologue that she delivers to McAdams when one of the skeletons in Bill’s closet resurfaces, explaining to both Paige and the audience the real cause behind the estrangement between Paige and her family. It is Oscar-caliber stuff, although the odds of her getting a nomination are virtually nil. I’d happily cast her in any film I was going to make, were I a Hollywood filmmaker.

There is plenty of schmaltz, certainly but the underlying conflict of doing what’s right for the person you love versus doing what’s right for yourself elevates this somewhat above most romantic films. While this isn’t what I’d call a Valentine’s Day classic, it certainly has plenty of heart and more than enough to tug at the heartstrings of women and more sensitive men. Yes, in some ways Leo is too good to be true but I think that when a man loves a woman as strongly as he does, he’ll do anything to make her happy – at his own expense if need be. And that is why love is stronger than anything else in life; because that willingness to sacrifice matters, even in the small things. It speaks highly of humans in a way little else about our existence does.

REASONS TO GO: Inspiring story. Lange magnificent in a supporting role.

REASONS TO STAY: Not as much chemistry between the leads as I would have liked.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and partial nudity. There is also an accident scene which isn’t terribly graphic or startling and a few choice words in places.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The cafe in which Paige works (and Leo and Paige frequently visit) is called Cafe Mnemonic; a mnemonic is a means of helping someone remember something by associating it with a word or phrase; it is a foreshadowing of Paige’s memory issues later in the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100. The reviews are pretty much poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Notebook

ART LOVERS: Paige’s sculptures are actually pretty interesting. They were in reality created by Cameron S. Brooke.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW:The Secret World of Arrietty