Taking a familiar “unconventional” approach to costume drama — that flames-of-inner-torment, Elvises-of-their-era, wild-youth-shagging-in-the-hillocks school — Julien Temple’s “Pandaemonium” labors hard to present the leading lights of late 18th-century English poetry as up-to-the-moment sexy bohos. The strain shows, however, and while this historical speculation about the friendship and collaboration between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth is never quite dull, neither does it ever find a viable rhythm, narrative arc or crux of emotional engagement. Lacking exportable marquee stars — apart from Samantha Morton, whose Mrs. C. mostly stands by the sidelines — and unlikely to win much critical support, pic faces lukewarm theatrical prospects on both sides of the Atlantic. Marginally better returns await in ancillary markets.
Somewhat hysterical tone is set by opening seg, which takes place in 1816 at a reception announcing England’s new Poet Laureate. As youthful next-big-thing Lord Byron (Guy Lankester) preens for attention, and the aristocracy exchange bitch quips as if at Studio 54’s VIP lounge, any remaining dignity to the occasion is lost with the pratfalling arrival of Coleridge (Linus Roache), babbling and hallucinating. His widely gossiped disintegration from opium abuse couldn’t be more evident. Putting a good, if self-serving, face on the embarrassing moment, Wordsworth (John Hannah) — who expects to win the laureate crown — introduces his former friend as “the midwife of my own genius.”
Hustled from public view, Coleridge experiences a sort of acid (well, opiate) flashback that abruptly — and not at all clearly — rewinds to 1795, when the two as-yet-unknown poets were united in underground political action inspired by the French Revolution. Ultimately, Coleridge rationalizes abandonment of their ideals by proclaiming that agrarian life is the New Man’s true path to freedom.
Reality proves less than utopian, however, as he, young wife Sarah (Morton) and the infant son he dubs “Citizen Baby” flounder in a rainy muck of vegetables and livestock. Better-bankrolled Wordsworth arrives as their rescuer, bringing along his wildly opinionated sister, Dorothy (Emily Woof), who promptly appoints herself their ever-so-critical muse. Taking up the first of several upscale country residences as a creative quartet — or rather trio, with Sarah left feeling like the resident domestic drudge — this group sets about breaking whatever rules come to mind.
This translates into scenes of the threesome stoned on local wacky weed (complete with upside-down camerawork), wrecking posh rooms like rock stars, shocking local clergy with their helium-induced Donald Duck voices, shouting hosannas to Mother Nature, rolling atop hillsides and one another.
All very proto-Summer of Love, but not much actual writing gets done until an under-the-weather Coleridge quaffs some “medicinal” laudanum. Suddenly, the quill is flying; a fantasy ship tosses on a roiling sea as he imagines himself perched mast-top; hello, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
This fevered hymn steals the spotlight whole from Wordsworth’s more conservatively crafted contribs to their shared “Lyrical Ballads” tome. Coleridge begins losing his sanity as well as inspiration under opium’s spell, torturing out the epic “Kubla Khan” en route. A serious rift between the jealous Wordsworth and tweaked Coleridge ensues, abetted by the former’s waspish new wife, Mary (Emma Fielding). Though script and direction do zilch to make the passage of time clear, these events bring us full-circle to 1816’s gala.
With a title that first emerges onscreen as “daemon,” “Pandaemonium” wants to convey the passionate desires, follies and insights that could reshape an art form. But Temple and scenarist Frank Cottrell Boyce (“Hilary and Jackie”) haven’t come up with a cogent tone or structure to suit that goal. Tossing us into 1790s England without any real intro to its political, artistic and social norms, these two-hours-plus feel disjointed, hectic, undifferentiated by narrative peaks and valleys.
There’s plenty of poetry recited (often quite stirringly) in voiceover by leads. Yet neither central figure develops the depth that would make literary genius or its processes vivid. Temple pushes his performers over the top from the start, without providing them a foundation to leap from.
Hence Roache, spastic-limbed and eyes popped wide, ends up trying to play straight precisely the same neurotic-artiste mannerisms Richard E. Grant has been parodying for years. For balance’s sake, Hannah makes Wordsworth a peevish dullard (worse, one who looks like a wizened Eddie Munster). Written as a pretentious groupie, Dorothy proves beyond Woof’s ability to render sympathy. Morton nails her few opportunities for droll reaction to these skylarking nutters, but mostly frets in the background.
Temple is hardly a costume-drama natural, given his background in musicvids, punk docs and uneven but energetic camp comedy (“Earth Girls Are Easy,” “Absolute Beginners”). His attempts to pump juice into the biographical material lead just where you might fear — to early-’70s Ken Russell, complete with psychedelic rhapsodies, gratuitous camera gymnastics and a Masterpiece Theatre Must Die historicism that too often simply means sweat-drenched actors screaming their lines. (With Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed, more was more; with this pro but charisma-low ensemble, it’s less.) Pic’s occasional self-ribbing only underlines its lack of conviction.
Budget limitations show in the absence of crowd/urban scenes outside framing segs; period atmosphere seldom convinces despite OK design contribs. Production package is slick but uninspired, the clear standout being lenser John Lynch’s postcard-perfect landscape shots.