Sunday, April 21, 2019

8 Great Romantic, Literary Biopics

It's particularly difficult to pull off a good biopic of a writer. The literary creative process takes place, invisibly, in the writer's mind, and the writing life doesn't usually lend itself to visual smorgasbord or plot extravaganza. Writers spend the lion's share of their working life sitting somewhere and putting words in a blank space. As a result, literary biopics tend to conflate the literary work and the biography, a strategy with a dubious success rate, given that writers do have imaginations and needn't live through something in order to write about it. A second, somewhat more successful strategy, is to put the writing aside and focus on the most eventful parts of the writers' lives, which often means their romantic lives. This is especially the case with women, since for centuries it was a rare (very wealthy) woman who succeeded in having the sorts of adventures that make for dramatic thrills. Many interesting writers have not yet received successful cinematic treatment and could potentially be wonderful subjects, like Louisa May Alcott, Simone de Beauvoir, Emily Dickinson (A Quiet Passion was anachronistic and affected, to say the least), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, L. M. Montgomery, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Simone Weil, to name those that occur to me first. Here are nine literary biopics, that accurate or not, will spark your interest in their subjects' work, as well as their romantic escapades:

An Angel at My Table (1990)
One of Jane Campion's best films, this biopic of New Zealand writer Janet Frame stars Kerry Fox. The most sensational aspect of Frame's exceedingly difficult life is the story that she was about to undergo a lobotomy when her first book won a national literature prize, but Campion isn't especially invested in painting lurid broad strokes. Instead, Frame's profoundly troubled mental state is treated as one element among many in a complicated life, from growing up in an overstuffed house with loving, mystified parents and a beloved, but demanding sister to learning the Sisyphean task of revision and falling into an impetuous affair in Spain. Fox's whirlwind of bright, red hair shines as a beacon of persistent hope through this gorgeous film.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)
Norma Shearer stars as Elizabeth Barrett Browning opposite Fredric March as Robert Browning and Charles Laughton as her tyrannical papa in this lovely Hollywood film, which is unfortunately in rather desperate need of restoration. The more theatrical, mannered acting style of the two leads suits the Browning romance far better than a naturalistic acting style would - "How do I love thee?" somehow doesn't lend itself to mumbling. Hints of something queasily incestuous in the Barrett family were rigorously censored, but Charles Laughton, according to legend, gleefully said, "They can't censor the gleam in my eye." A rare story of a happy marriage between poets, this film is romantic and literary in equal parts.

Colette (2018)
Though Wash Westmoreland's lavish film plays fast and loose with history, politics, and the actual details of Colette's life, it succeeds as a dream of twenty-first century wish fulfillment in corsets, lace, and cravats. Keira Knightley gives a dependably solid performance and remains, with Romola Garai, especially good in period pieces. On the one hand, I would be tempted to tear Colette to shreds, given its blatant inaccuracies, its sue-me, nasty depictions of some figures and its absurdly rosy depictions of others, its shoehorning of contemporary vocabulary into historical mouths; on the other, I quite enjoyed it! So, while contrary to the film's obnoxious tagline, history is not about to change, I will admit that as a romantic fantasy of a flamboyant writer's life, this movie works wonderfully. Even if that particular writer doesn't have all that much to do with the actual Colette.

Impromptu (1991)
Another wildly historically inaccurate film, Impromptu is nevertheless utterly delicious, a bonbon of witty repartee and buoyantly transgressive sex games. Trouser-sporting, cigar-smoking George Sand is played by Judy Davis and hypochondriac, dandily delicate Chopin by Hugh Grant (in one of his best performances), with Mandy Patinkin as Alfred de Musset, Julian Sands - a particular favorite of mine and perfect for period films - as Franz Liszt, and Bernadette Peters as Marie d'Agoult. The gender-bent trajectory of the woman pursuing the swooning man remains unusual, but the film's greater strengths are the screenplay by Sarah Kernochan and the performances. Impromptu is cousin to the best of the Merchant-Ivory films and a rare, genuinely funny period comedy.

Miss Potter (2006)
Beatrix Potter doesn't seem to be the likeliest of subjects for a biopic, for if ever a writer led a quiet, secluded life, it was Potter. The joy of Miss Potter, with its dazzling, dew-dropped visual palette, is that it doesn't try to invent an exciting or radical life for a woman who wrote and illustrated delightful stories about rabbits, hedgehogs, and kittens and lived contentedly enough in the domestic sphere. By granting respect for such a life, this film is one of the few to value ordinary women's lives, for Potter's life was quite ordinary, except in two instances: her lovely books and her determined efforts to preserve the Lake District. The excellent cast includes Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, and Emily Watson.

Rowing with the Wind (1988)
The conception of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has been the subject of a number of films, including Ken Russell's horror-tinged Gothic (with the marvelous Julian Sands, but otherwise not good) and the recent Mary Shelley, which one can only assume was written by an angsty teenager who sleeps through history class. Unexpectedly, this obscure iteration written and directed by Gonzalo Suárez betters both. Suárez seems to have evaded the heavy carapace of the long tradition of Frankenstein films, threading his film with scenes of Frankenstein in the Arctic, still hunting down his unnatural progeny. The monster haunts Mary Shelley throughout the film, both a harbinger of doom and an insistent call to creative work. A highly literate, often nightmarish film, starring a very young Hugh Grant as Lord Byron.

Testament of Youth (2014)
Based on Vera Brittain's devastating, pacifist memoir, Testament of Youth is both lushly romantic and harshly unforgiving. In a Hollywood fictional film, the hero makes it back; the film's Vera (Alicia Vikander) sees many would-be heroes across the channel to the trenches of France, including her brother (Taron Egerton) and the man she loves (Kit Harington). Initially, Vera seems to be the sort of rebellious, headstrong heroine that we so love these days, pursuing her university her studies and keeping up with the boys, but the war, its horror and thuggish patriotism, destroy any possibility of triumphal feminist parades. As Vera sees what the war is doing to the men she loves, she abandons her studies and becomes a war nurse. In this case, both romance and writing are entirely enmeshed in the war that ought to have ended all wars.

To Walk Invisible (2016)
This biopic of the Brontë siblings is one of those rare efforts in which writers are not squashed into the molds of their characters. No dangerous madman is assigned Emily (Chloe Pirrie) for a lover, Charlotte's (Finn Atkins) unhappy love affair with a married man is carried on through correspondence and memory, rather than entrance into a haunted mansion, and Anne (Charlie Murphy), forgotten Anne, is recognized as the most staunchly political of the three sisters. The desolate beauty of the moors, the rhythms of kneading a loaf of bread, the sudden, heartstopping moments when brother Branwell (Adam Nagaitis) drops into stupefied, drunken despair, the willfully blind, but loving gaze of their father (Jonathan Pryce) - the textures and cadences of the Brontë sisters' lives, including their writing, their publishing successes, and a bold visit to their publisher in London make up the slender plot of To Walk Invisible. The dappled, yet gloomy cinematography by David Raedeker deserves special mention.

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