directed by Julian Temple
(USA Films, 2001)

Director Julian Temple, experienced in helming such contemporary pop culture projects as The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle and The Filth and the Fury, now turns his attentions to two of the greatest English poets of all time, showing how they were once the equivalent of rock stars of their day. Pandaemonium, visually dazzling and also thoughtful and intelligent without loss of entertainment factors, focuses on the relationship between the Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1722-1834) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850). The film dramatizes their friendship, rivalries, ambitions and involvements in political intrigue -- seeing events in the 19th century paralleling the zeitgeist of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Boyce's literate script, without slowing the pace, manages to portray the protagonists' involvement with political uprisings influenced by the French Revolution, brushes with governmental surveillance and oppression, dabblings in Utopianism and scientific innovations, respect for nature, use of opiates, and popularity akin to latter day stardom complete with press coverage and young women "fans."

The two poets' contrasting personalities vividly come to the fore in sympathetic portrayals, memorably Coleridge (Linus Roache), with his fevered mind fueled with laudanum (a tincture of opium), struggling to compose his great works "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan." Wordsworth (John Hannah), an equally compelling presence, exudes a more subdued, earthbound sensibility supported by Dorothy (Emily Woof), his sharp-witted, insightful, proto-feminist sister. Dorothy adds delicious angst to the proceedings with her passion for a receptive Coleridge inhibited by his marriage to the long-suffering, patient Sara (Samantha Morton) and his responsibilities as a father. Additional emotional juice comes from excellent performances by supporting cast members including Emma Fielding portraying Wordsworth's cool and aloof spouse Mary; Andy Serkis' portrayal of John Thelwell, survivor of torture in the Tower of London for supporting Coleridge's political activism; and Samuel West in the role of Robert Southey, Coleridge's empathetic friend who interestingly, authored The Three Bears.

Pandaemonium represents one of those special films that successfully depicts the process of literary creation, making Wordsworth's peripatetic dictations to Dorothy seem slightly amusing and eccentric, while Coleridge's tormented bouts of creativity also come across effectively. Gorgeous panoramas of the landscape of lakes and shores and hills and fields and villages that nurtured the imaginations of the two poets offer visual dazzle entirely relevant to the drama. Also lovely to behold are the meticulously accurate period details in the interiors, the costumes, and the flickering candles at night providing the only available light.

An excellent score with recognizable passages from classical composers bridged by haunting, original segments ably enhances this movie which deserves wider distribution than its limited "art house" bookings.

Pandaemonium must not be missed by anyone who appreciates the great literary heritage of the English Romantic poets (large portions of the film include voice overs of Coleridge's and Wordworth's works) or who craves intelligent entertainment.

[ by Amy Harlib ]
Rambles: 8 September 2001

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