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?

Red Joan


The spy who knitted tea cozies.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFCJudi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Laurence Spellman, Tereza Srbova, Ben Miles, Robin Soans, Kevin Fuller, Stephen Boxer, Simon Ludders, Steven Hillman, Ciarán Owens, Phil Langhorne, Stuart Whelan, Freddie Gaminara, Stephen Samson, Paul Kerry, Adrian Wheeler, Lulu Meissner. Directed by Trevor Nunn

Ah, the things we do for love. Sometimes we are moved to do things because of conscience but how many times have we done things we ordinarily wouldn’t or couldn’t do out of love? Most of us can ruefully admit to at least a small list.

Pensioner Joan Stanley (Dench), an octogenarian living in suburban London, spends most of her days fixing herself tea and working in her garden, weather permitting. Her son Patrick (Spellman), a busy lawyer and politician, rarely has time to visit her anymore so when there’s a knock on her door, she’s taken aback. However, it’s not a social visit; it’s MI-5, putting her under arrest for providing nuclear secrets to the Soviets.

Most of the rest of the film proceeds in flashbacks. While a University student, Joan (Cookson) had fallen under the spell of glamorous immigrant Sonya (Srbova) and even more so of Sonya’s smoldering, brooding cousin Leo (Hughes), a not-so-closet communist party member in the 1930s when the Reds were viewed with some distrust at the very least. It isn’t long before the naïve and mousy Joan is in Leo’s bed.

When the Second World War erupts and the Soviet Union becomes our ally, Joan is drafted into an atomic research team headed by Professor Max Davis (Moore). Although Joan is used as little more than a glorified secretary, she is in fact a brilliant physicist whom Max comes to rely on as a problem solver and eventually, on a much more personal level.

When the Americans drop the A-bomb onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Joan who knows better than most the consequences of such an act is absolutely horrified. She comes to the realization that these terrible World Wars will continue unless both sides have access to these terrible weapons. When Leo and Sonya come knocking on her door, she is more than willing to answer.

Although (very loosely) based on actual events, this film doesn’t have the air of authenticity that something based on reality has. Far from being a John LeCarre-like spy thriller which I believe it aspires to be, this is more like a soap opera that out of one side of its face decries the marginalization of women and on the other side has them as simple-headed sops who do mad, impetuous things out of love or maybe just lust. Apparently even feminists can be fools for love.

If that sounds a bit catty, it can be forgiven; there’s a hell of a story to be told here and Nunn and company squander it. Worse still, there are some terrific performances by Dench and Cookson that are essentially wasted. Also, let the viewer beware – although Dench is top-lined here, she is limited to a meager amount of screen time; Cookson gets the lion’s share of that.

While there are some terrific moments – young Joan’s confession to Max, Patrick’s repudiation of his mother – that are worth waiting for, for the most part the movie maddeningly doesn’t let us inside the head of Joan. She does things seemingly on whim. She’s not much of a spy; she gets by mainly because, as Sonya wryly puts it, no men would think a woman capable of such deception plus there’s more than a smattering of dumb luck and Joan’s pals willing to take the blame for Joan’s actions.

This isn’t a spy saga as I’ve said; it’s more of a melodrama and a fairly rote one at that. Given the superior cast and the remarkable true story that inspired it, this movie could have been so much more. However, I can’t review that movie, only the ones that Nunn and his colleagues have given us and it’s frankly not one that rises far above mediocrity.

REASONS TO SEE: Dench always delivers the goods. There are some very powerful moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit soapy and/or syrupy in places. Lots of potential here but ultimately the film doesn’t deliver.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie, as the novel that inspired it, was based on the real life case of Melita Norwood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Theory of Everything
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Master Maggie