thu 25/07/2024

The Laureate review - a romp with Robert Graves | reviews, news & interviews

The Laureate review - a romp with Robert Graves

The Laureate review - a romp with Robert Graves

Nicely crafted nonsense about poet Robert Graves's 1920s ménage à trois

Good-bye to all that modesty: Laura Riding (Dianna Agron) and Robert Graves (Tom Hughes)Dazzler Media

Nowadays Robert Graves is best known for his later and least interesting works on Greek myths and Roman emperors, but at his best, in the first decade of his writing life, as a war poet (Fairies and Fusiliers) and war memoirist (Good-Bye to All That), he was a powerful mythmaker in his own right.

He was also borderline absurd, a cut-price Lord Byron whose scandalous private life – in particular the Jazz Age ménage à trois with his wife Nancy Nicholson and a charismatic American literary critic, Laura Riding – somehow overshadowed his literary career.

The title of writer-director William Nunez’s film about this love triangle is a clever play on words, because the subject of The Laureate isn’t so much the brooding poet (Tom Hughes) himself as a cult of personality he constructed around Riding (Dianna Agron), the mistress and muse he later immortalised in The White Goddess, a book about the nature of poetic mythmaking.

In homage to Graves perhaps, The Laureate is itself borderline absurd, another expensive foray into sub-Bloomsbury period porn (BenedictionVita and Virginia) in which a troupe of handsome actors impersonate shell-shocked intellectuals and take off their clothes. Laughably, in The Laureate, one sequence depicts Hughes (as Graves) outside in his pyjamas, literally howling at the moon.

It's 1928 (some of the chronology is a bit wonky) and Graves is moping foppishly around the house in Islip, Oxfordshire, he shares with his feminist painter wife Nicholson (Laura Haddock, pictured right) when he invites the glamorous flapper Riding to stay, hoping that she will “invigorate” his creativity, as it were.

In the voiceover that opens the movie, Haddock's Nicholson compares this invitation to inviting a snake into the garden, and there’s no doubt that Agron’s Riding does her share of slithering.

It all starts with the time-honoured cliché that a man and a woman painting a spare room always wind up sploshing paint over each other. But then Riding pounces on a young Irish poet, Geoffrey Phibbs (Fra Fee, who upstages Hughes with his even floppier Romantic poet’s hair). The hilarious meltdown scene in which Riding jumps suicidally from a high window at the climax of the (now) foursome’s lovers’ tiff prompts Graves to throw himself from another lower window, incurring only minor injuries.

Here, as elsewhere, Nunez hedges with respect to reality. Only in the London literary scenes, where TS Eliot (Christien Anholt) is portrayed as an obnoxious hypocritical bore, does the film seem anything but false.

But “invigoration” – of which there is quite a soft-focus lot in The Laureate – aside, the main problem here, as with Sylvia (2003), say, or The Edge of Love (2008), is it’s always frustrating to watch films about writers that studiously ignore the act of writing. Unfortunately, dramatising the lives of writers is problematic because the act of writing is inherently undramatic.

Half-naked at one point, Riding who’s stirred Graves’s creative and other juices, asks him beside a picturesque fireside, “And what is true poetry for you?” To which he replies, after a kind of Zoolander gurn, “True poetry makes the hair stand on end, eyes water, throat contract and a shiver runs down your spine.” True cinema, too, but this nicely crafted nonsense is a long way from that.

Comments

This review is nicely crafted nonsense. The premise is wrong in your review although the cliches have a valid point. This movie read to me more about the state of a marriage and the crosses and sacrifices one makes to either keep it alive or kill it all together. At the cinema near Manchester where I saw a nice crowd seemed to go with it which once again proves the critic/audience divide.

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