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PANDAEMONIUM(director: Julien Temple; screenwriter: Frank Cottrell Boyce; cinematographer: John Lynch; editor: Niven Howie; music: Dario Marianelli; cast: Linus Roache (Samuel Taylor Coleridge), John Hannah (William Wordsworth), Samuel West (Robert Southey), Samantha Morton (Sara Coleridge), Emma Fielding (Mary Wordsworth), Emily Woof (Dorothy Wordsworth), Andy Serkis (John Thelwall),Michael N. Harbour (Walsh), William Scott-Masson (Tom Poole); Runtime: 124; USA Films release of a BBC Films presentation of a Mariner Films production in association with the Arts Council of England and Moonstone Entertainment; 2000-UK)
“A watchable but silly biopic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A watchable but silly biopic melodrama about the relationship between fellow romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Linus Roache) and William Wordsworth (John Hannah) in the early part of the 19th century. The film favors in all its sympathies the functionally disabled opium addict Coleridge, who in his more lucid and free-spirited moments gave the world “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan,” over the base but prolific professionalism of the repressed Wordsworth’s more mundane and literary-minded poetry.

The film is seen through the confused mental state of Coleridge and his hallucinatory drug-induced experiences. Pandaemonium opens when Coleridge attends a literary party where Wordsworth believes he will be celebrated as England’s poet laureate, and in flashback through Coleridge’s eyes we go back to how the two met and what then transpired.

They met at a political rally in 1795 at the time of the political upheaval following the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, which provoked in Great Britain conflicting responses and allegiances. Both poets supported the new hope for liberty they witnessed from France and to create a rural utopia to write their Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge orates to the masses on democracy, while the whimpering Wordsworth wavers behind the scenes. Coleridge and his future wife Sara (Samantha Morton) and their friend, the political revolutionary John Thelwall (Andy Serkis), are at risk during these times of government informers because they are working together in publishing a radical tract, “The Watchman.”

After Thelwall’s arrest and torture in the Tower of London, Coleridge moves with his patient wife Sara and baby to a cottage in Somerset country and they call the place their New Eden. They welcome fellow travelers to come there and write poetry and live in nature, but none come. Their workman neighbor Tom Poole helps them build a house library and their first visitors are Wordsworth and his outspoken but vulnerable sister Dorothy (Emily Woof). Dorothy abruptly tells Coleridge that he is plain-looking and that his poetry is “narrowly domestic and lacking in ambition.” She also points out that New Eden is little more than a cottage with a market garden. Later she becomes convinced that Coleridge is a genius and explains the symbolism of the albatross to her thick brother, saying the dead bird indicated the poet has broken his bonds with nature and the result is chaos.

While the Wordsworths stay there Coleridge becomes their critic and muse showing them the way to poetry with his great exuberance, and Dorothy falls in love with him but can’t tell him. Instead she says, she’ll settle for possessing his “soaring soul” and honorably leave his body to Sara. As she turns her attention fully on Coleridge, her brother becomes jealous and can’t write without her support. They therefore eventually rent an estate nearby, as the poet’s collaboration begins to wane. Wordsworth will marry the cold Mary (Emma Fielding), who prefers her husband’s more reserved poetry to Coleridge’s.

The director, Julien Temple (“Absolute Beginners“), makes Wordsworth into a government spy, a Tory sympathizer, an ogre, and a betrayer of poetry. Wordsworth becomes Coleridge’s main problem instead of his opium addiction. The characterization of Wordsworth is rather heavy-handed and somewhat iffy. Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (“Hilary and Jackie“/”The Claim“) has no trouble ridiculing Wordsworth. But I’m skeptical of the facts presented. I got my high only when the excitable but gentle Coleridge’s poetry was presented. These drug-induced visualizations of Coleridge with his surroundings becoming part of his poetry, was reminiscent of the feverish biopics of Ken Russell.

REVIEWED ON 2/19/2002 GRADE: C +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”