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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Goodbye Christopher Robin


A lovely father, son and bear moment from the Hundred Acre Woods.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard McCabe, Geraldine Somerville, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Shaun Dingwall, Tommy Rodger, Sam Barnes, Mark Tandy, Richard Dixon, Nicholas Richardson, Ann Thwaite, Allegra Marland, Victoria Bavister. Directed by Simon Curtis

 

The Winnie the Pooh stories and children’s books are among the most beloved on the planet. Who doesn’t long for the simpler times of the Hundred Acre Woods, the love and affection of Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and of course Pooh himself? When the books were originally written between the wars, they were tonic for the troops, taking a country that had lost so much in the Great War and if not healing at least allowing those wounded and broken by the horrors of World War I to escape it for awhile.

The author, A. A. Milne (Gleeson) was himself  a soldier in that war, fighting in such places as the Battle of the Somme. When he arrived home, he suffered from what was at the time called shell shock but is better known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The backfires of cars, popped champagne corks and balloons bursting were enough to trigger Milne with terrifying flashbacks to the war; London had become intolerable for him so he hauled his young bride Daphne (Robbie) to the countryside of East Essex and set about trying to heal.

Shortly thereafter, Daphne gave birth to Christopher Robin (Tilston) whom his parents dubbed Billy Moon. Like most upper class parents of the time, they enlisted a nanny – Olive (Macdonald) whom Billy named Nou – to do the bulk of the child rearing. Daphne disliked the country life immensely, missing the parties and the culture of London and eventually went back to the big city, with no firm date as to when she might return. To add to Milne’s misery, Nou was also obliged to return home due to a family crisis, forcing Milne to spend time with his tow-headed son.

Against all odds the two end up bonding and Milne finds solace in the little adventures that the two set up for Billy’s beloved stuffed bear Pooh. Milne becomes compelled to write the stories down, first as a poem and then as children’s books which prove to be wildly popular. Daphne and Nou both return home and the family basks in the success for a short time.

But the public clamors to meet “the real Christopher Robin” and the clueless parents aren’t above trotting their progeny around for personal appearances, interviews and publicity stunts without a thought of what this might be doing to the boy. With Milne writing sequels and the demand growing exponentially, the real Christopher Robin begins to wonder if he himself is as loved as the fictional one by his parents and the resentment begins to grow and grow and grow.

Considering the joy and lightness of the Pooh books, this is a dark tale indeed and parents thinking that this is suitable for young children brought up on the Disney versions of the characters should be dissuaded from that thought. The themes here are very serious and adult and some of the scenes of war and its aftermath are likely to produce nightmares in the very young.

The odd thing is that most of the people in this film are thoroughly unlikable; Daphne who is a whining harpy who is completely self-centered (it is well known that in reality her son refused to speak to her for the last 15 years of her life), A.A. (called Blue by his friends) who was also self-absorbed and nearly broken and even young Billie Moon acts out an awful lot (understandably). Only Nou comes off as genuine, sweet and caring; fortunately for us she’s also the narrator In fact Macdonald just about steals the show here but I think it’s because the character is a life preserver in a stormy sea of selfishness throughout the film.

Although the film is said to be “inspired by true events” I understand that the filmmakers stuck pretty close to the facts which makes this almost tragic. There are moments of magic, yes, but Milne’s condition is so often and so thoroughly thrust in our faces that after awhile we want to grab Curtis and yell in his face “WE GET IT!!!!” The story of the creation of one of children’s literature’s most beloved characters is not a happy one and while I admire the warts and all portrayal of the Milne family, at the end I was longing for an escape into the magic of the Hundred Acre Wood myself.

REASONS TO GO: Kelly Macdonald gives a marvelous performance as the nanny. The film really picks up momentum during the middle third.
REASONS TO STAY: Tilston is a bit overbearing. The filmmakers overplay the PTSD element.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of bullying, war violence, brief profanity and themes about coping with the aftermath of war and of parental exploitation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Christopher Robin had one daughter, Claire, who was born with Cerebral Palsy. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 56, 16 years after her father did.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Daddy’s Home 2

Dunkirk (2017)


Waiting to evacuate, a British soldier nervously scans the sky for Nazi planes in Dunkirk.

(2017) War (Warner Brothers) Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Tom Glynn-Carney, James D’Arcy, Harry Styles, Will Attenborough, Aneurin Barnard, Jack Lowden, Billy Howle, Matthew Marsh, Richard Sanderson, Bobby Lockwood, Mikey Collins, Dean Ridge, Adam Long, Bradley Hall, Miranda Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan

 

Dunkirk remains one of the seminal moments in the Second World War. Churchill’s stirring speech “We shall never surrender!” was written about the event. For those whose history is rusty, when the Nazis overran France some 400,000 soldiers were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. With Hitler’s troops drawing the noose tight, the English were staring at the obliteration of most of their army and essentially the complete loss of Western Europe.

Nolan aims to capture the desperation and chaos of those few days using three time-dilated stories each centered around a single element; a week following soldiers waiting to die or be rescued on the jetty and on the beach, a day aboard one of the civilian rescue vessels desperately trying to ferry as many soldiers back to safety as possible, this one captained by the noble Mr. Dawson (Rylance) and an hour in the air with a pair of daring RAF pilots (Hardy, Lowden) trying to take out the Luftwaffe planes trying to bomb and strafe the beaches and the British naval vessels trying to evacuate the troops.

Like Memento, Nolan uses time differently than most linear storytelling techniques in order to….well, I’m not quite sure. It is confusing at times to follow the goings on when you are jumping ahead and back in time depending on whether you’re in a boat, plane or beach. It also leads to a curious difficulty in telling the different characters apart for the most part; the soldiers and sailors are all fresh faced and largely unknown with a few exceptions and those exceptions tend to stand out, particularly Rylance and to a lesser extent, Branagh as a stolid Naval commander and Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier pulled out of the ocean by Rylance.

The technical achievement here is impressive, maybe even mind-blowing. I’m not just talking about the special effects but on all the elements of the film, from the lighting (often utilizing a washed out pastel color palate that gives a visual accounting of the hopelessness of the waiting soldiers) to the way the shots are lined up to the sound design to the way there’s virtually no let-up in the tension from the opening shot to the closing credits.

Some of the few remaining Dunkirk survivors who viewed the film at its London premiere observed that the sound wasn’t quite as loud during the real bombing and strafing which apparently Nolan found amusing and when you think about it, has a ring of the “Turn down that music ya whippersnappers” to it. Not that I’m an expert but this may be the most authentic war movie since the D-day scene in Saving Private Ryan raised the bar on war movies in general.

There was talk this was going to be an Oscar contender way back in July when this was released and to that end Warner Brothers is planning a re-release to remind Academy voters not to forget about this film among all the year-end prestige releases. And, for those wondering, that is also why it hasn’t been released to home video just yet. If you haven’t seen it in a theater, by all means make a point to do so when the re-release occurs. You won’t be sorry.

REASONS TO GO: This may be the most realistic depiction of war since Saving Private Ryan. The tension generated here is absolutely relentless. Rylance has become one of the most reliable actors working today.
REASONS TO STAY: Those sensitive to loud noises may have issues with this.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some very intense war violence as well as occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie directed by Nolan to portray real events.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Longest Day
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Diana: Our Mother, Her Life and Her Legacy