Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Pandaemonium is right. For most of this historical travesty, you think Ken Russell has been let out of the asylum. At the end, when the credits roll, the director is named as Julien Temple, the man who delivered the coup-de-grace to Goldcrest, the British studio that won Oscars for Chariots Of Fire and Gandhi, with Absolute Beginners 15 years ago.

Supposedly about the friendship between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth during the waning years of the 18th century, when together they laid the foundations of English Romanticism with their joint work, Lyrical Ballads, the film turns William into a villain and Sam into a drug-crazed loony.

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The facts are twisted out of recognition. Coleridge didn't meet Wordsworth until 1797, when he was living in Somerset. According to scriptwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, they were pals years before in London, when young radicals wrote pamphlets on secret printing presses in support of the French Revolution. At one point, during a meeting in his lodgings, Coleridge rebukes the rowdy scribblers with "You'll wake Citizen Baby", meaning his six-month-old son.

William (John Hannah) has a Scots accent. His sister, Dorothy (Emily Woof), speaks broad Cumbrian. William is a dour fellow, with no personality whatsoever. Sam (Linus Roache) rushes about in a mad frenzy of excitement, tossing off ideas and phrases, blind to the practicalities of life. Dorothy is a sexpot, with enough energy and enthusiasm to light both their fires. Sara (Samantha Morton), Sam's wife, does the washing and cleaning and cooking and mothering. When an old friend compliments her chest measurements at dinner one evening, everyone at the table toasts "Breast feeding!"

William has permanent writer's block until Dorothy spends a night with him and next morning he's striding across the hills in full flow. "I wandered lonely as a cow," he spouts. "Perhaps cloud would be better, William," Dorothy suggests.

That's squirmy enough, but there's worse. Sam persuades William to write a novella together. He would do the first chapter, William the second and they would collaborate on the third. They sit down in the evening opposite each other, quills poised. Nothing happens. Sam complains of toothache. Sara brings a bottle of laudanum. Sam gulps a glass. He starts to write. He drinks some more. He writes and writes until, next morning, amid a pile of finished pages, he lies exhausted. William has written nothing and drunk nothing. Is this an advertisement for opium, or what?

Temple's pop video roots are exposed. Once drugs enter the scene, he's off on hallucinatory voyages of visual discovery. At one moment, Sam is struggling with an oil slick. At another, the white plume of a jet plane crosses the sky. Roache wrestles bravely with the creative spirit, as Hannah wafts through rooms like a bad smell.

Woof is flirtatious and bossy, while Morton looks sad, as well she might.

Reviewed on: 27 Sep 2001
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Friendship and rivalry between Romantic poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.
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Director: Julien Temple

Writer: Frank Cottrell Boyce

Starring: John Hannah, Linus Roache, Samantha Morton, Emily Woof, Emma Fielding, Andy Serkis, Samuel West

Year: 2000

Runtime: 125 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


Bradford 2008

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