Performance Poetry: Poets on Film

Photos: Matthew Rhys in
Photos: Matthew Rhys in "The Edge of Love"; Gwyneth Paltrow in "Sylvia"/©Focus Features; Willem Dafoe in "Tom and Viv"/©Miramax

Biopics, by their very nature, often suggest that their subjects lived in higher and finer ways than us, elevated lives that a two-hour film can barely contain. Biopics about poets especially lean on this theme, even as their subjects engage in human experiences of love or dissipation. As Dylan Thomas (Matthew Rhys) of “The Edge of Love” announces, “I … sleep with other women because I’m a poet and a poet feeds off life!”

It’s a hilariously clunky line, but it sums up the incentive for these films: the appeal of peeking into famous personal lives, the more scandalous the better. (Our almost TMZ-like interest in poetic lives will continue; Savage Beauty, Nancy Milford’s biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, has been optioned and “The Broken Tower,” a James Franco-starring biopic of Hart Crane, is in production.) It’s why we get depictions of the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Lord Byron, but none of the reclusive Emily Dickinson. (Unless someone gives White Heat the “Bright Star” treatment or turns her into, say, a zombie hunter.) It’s also why poets’ work takes a backseat to the turmoil of their lives and why the creative process is rarely dramatized in these films: Who wants to see the unsexy agonies of sitting at your desk all day without any ideas? (Cough.)

In the end, what makes poet biopics resonant is, ironically, the poetry. While we may lead lives of quiet drama rather than lives of Hollywood Drama, we can still be moved and inspired by the power of verse to revolutionize, to romance, or to encourage, thus elevating our own lives, however briefly, to match the flights of these figures.

Here are some of the most interesting:

“The Barretts of Wimpole Street” (1934)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning & Robert Browning

Rudolf Besier’s popular play was twice adapted, most famously with Norma Shearer as Elizabeth and Frederic March as Robert. Nominally a fictionalization of Victorian poetry’s most famous courtship, the story’s central relationship is between the invalid Elizabeth and her father (Charles Laughton), whose almost incestuously tyrannical hold over his children frays with the arrival of the dashing Robert Browning. While theatrical, the performances of Shearer, March, and Laughton bring emotional power to the triangulated relationship between the characters.

“Tom & Viv” (1994)

T. S. Eliot

Starring Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson (nominated for an Oscar) in the title roles, this film adapted Michael Hastings’ 1984 play about Eliot’s first marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Married in 1915, the couple’s relationship disintegrates as signs of hormonal imbalance manifest in Viv. Misdiagnosed as insane, she undergoes various unsuccessful treatments, until her family commits her to an asylum; Eliot never saw or spoke to her again, though they never divorced. This is really Richardson's film; her moving, eccentric performance condemns class and cultural perceptions of mental illness.

“Pandaemonium” (2000)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge & William Wordsworth

Known for his relationship with the Sex Pistols, director Julien Temple injected the energy of punk into his film about Coleridge (Linus Roache) and Wordsworth (John Hannah). The pair collaborated on the seminal Romantic text Lyrical Ballads, a collection that rejected the period’s ornate, elevated verse for a more natural, spontaneous expression of the everyday. Temple sees Wordsworth and Coleridge, with their drug-induced fever dreams and creative rivalry, as an early Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. More inventive than factual, “Pandaemonium” evokes the spirit of Romanticism and its revolutionary impact on literary history.

“Sylvia” (2003)

Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes

Though the title implies full-scale treatment, "Sylvia" focuses on the American Plath’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) tempestuous relationship with future Poet Laureate Hughes (Daniel Craig). Framing her life as tragic melodrama, the film never lets us forget that Plath suffered from depression, awkwardly inserting hints whenever possible, without giving a sense of her literary importance. Where it succeeds is in its glimpses of the real difficulties of the creative process — writer’s block leads Plath to procrastinate by baking — particularly amid the daily distractions of a woman’s life.

“The Edge of Love” (2008)

Dylan Thomas

Welsh poet Thomas is almost an afterthought in this vehicle written for Keira Knightley by her mother. “The Edge of Love” dramatizes the friendship between Thomas’s wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller) and his childhood sweetheart Vera (Knightley). After a wartime meeting, the two women become close, their bond weathering air raids, infidelity, Thomas’ alcoholism, and the shell shock of Vera’s soldier husband William Killick (Cillian Murphy). The stagy artifice of the dialogue weighs the plot down, but the visual stylization, which echoes Knightley’s previous film “Atonement,” establishes dramatic atmosphere.

“Bright Star” (2009)

John Keats

Starring Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish, Jane Campion’s film reconstructs the Romantic-era relationship between Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne. Introduced by mutual acquaintances, the pair fell in love through poetry and eventually became engaged. The poet, however, died of tuberculosis before they could wed; Brawne mourned him for six years. Inspired by the naturalism of Romanticism, the film’s delicately sensual aesthetics counterpoint the emotional rigor of the story and its characters. And their romance still fascinates: Last week, a love letter from Keats to Brawne fetched £96,000 at auction.

“Howl” (2010)

Allen Ginsberg

As many critics observed, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s “Howl” is less a docudrama about the obscenity trial of the famous Beat epic than a cinematic representation of literary criticism. Perhaps the first manifestly reader-response film about literature, “Howl” constructs the body of the poem out of the layered voices of Ginsberg, his peers, critics, the judiciary, and readers. As such, it succeeds where the traditional biopic does not, contextualizing both the poem and Ginsberg (James Franco) in history, while depicting the analytic beauty (yes, beauty) of literary interpretation.

Do any of these biopics inspire you to poetic heights? Which poet would you like to see in a biopic? (We vote for female spy Aphra Behn, laureate of the commonplace Philip Larkin, and court poet Sei Shonagon.)

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