‘Pandaemonium’: Poets Clash in Era of Volatile Change
With “Pandaemonium,” a vivid depiction of the most creative period in the life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, involving his relationship with William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, director Julien Temple and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce have the right idea: Don’t be timid in dramatizing the tempestuous lives of the pioneering Romantic poets.
Before lapsing into all-out third-act Victorian melodrama with a thicket of sudden reversals, Temple and Boyce succeed in evoking a plausibly volatile atmosphere in which great artists alternately collaborate and collide in temperament, egos, values and perceptions in an era of wrenching change.
It is at the turn of the 19th century, in the wake of the French Revolution and the ominous rise of Napoleon, which provoked in Great Britain deeply conflicting fears, responses and allegiances. The filmmakers sketch in this political turmoil only hazily but perhaps rightly presume that anyone who would sit still for a film on Coleridge and Wordsworth in the first place would have some familiarity with the turbulent times that shaped their art.
Coleridge (Linus Roache) and Wordsworth (John Hannah) meet at a political rally in 1795 at which Coleridge is declaiming on liberty, democracy and free speech. He and his future wife Sara (Samantha Morton) and their friend, the political revolutionary John Thelwall (Andy Serkin), are involved in publishing a radical tract, “The Watchman.”
Overcome with a sense of futility and danger in direct political action, Coleridge decides he might better effect social change through establishing a rural Utopian community, settling in his “New Eden” in the hills of Somerset. Having hit it off with Wordsworth he suggests that he join him and Sara, and Wordsworth responds, bringing along his sister Dorothy (Emily Woof).
Dorothy is blunt with Coleridge, telling him that he is plain-looking and that his poetry is “narrowly domestic and lacking in ambition.” She is also quick to point out that New Eden is little more than a cottage with a market garden. Eventually, the Wordsworths rent a grand estate nearby.
Coleridge will have an important influence on Wordsworth and Dorothy--he’s a critic and a muse to both. Dorothy is sufficiently brave, committed and brilliant enough to live up to her grand pronouncements; she’s also incredibly vulnerable. She of course falls in love with Coleridge but tells him she’ll settle for possessing his “soaring soul” and honorably leave his body to Sara. Naturally, Wordsworth, accustomed to his sister’s undivided support, experiences jealousy--and worse, still, writer’s block. Inevitably, the Coleridge-Wordsworth friendship and collaboration begins to sour.
In many ways Dorothy emerges the most sympathetic as well as the most pivotal figure in the film, and she is brought to life with passion and daring by Woof; Roache and Hannah also respond well to the demands of playing immensely talented and complex individuals. But as Temple has said, “Pandaemonium” is Coleridge’s story and is specifically concerned with the paradox of how Coleridge’s opium addiction at once unleashed in him such great poems as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the “Kubla Khan” fragment but also threatened to destroy the poet.(After repeated attempts Coleridge did succeed in bringing his addiction under control.)
Julien boldly envisions Coleridge’s hallucinatory experiences while writing these works; indeed, it’s unfortunate and ironic that Temple risks so much so successfully in evoking an atmosphere of literary imagination as well as Coleridge’s drug-induced fantasies only to conclude his film in a thud of fustian staginess. Even if the final meeting of Coleridge and Wordsworth is historically accurate in every detail, which seems highly doubtful, it plays as preposterous.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for drug content. Times guidelines: substantial drug-taking, complex adult themes.
Linus Roache: Samuel Taylor Coleridge
John Hannah: William Wordsworth
Samantha Morton: Sara Coleridge
Emily Woof: Dorothy Wordsworth
A USA Films release of a BBC Films presentation of a Mariner Films production in association with the Arts Council of England and Moonstone Entertainment. Director Julien Temple. Producer Nick O’Hagan. Executive producers David M. Thompson, Mike Phillips, Tracey Scoffield. Cinematographer John Lynch. Screenplay Frank Cottrell Boyce. Editor Niven Howie. Music Dario Marianelli. Costumes Annie Symons. Production designer Laurence Dorman. Art directors Bill Crutcher, Ben Scott. Set decorator Philiipa Hart. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.