As with most tortured, self-indulgent artists, Lord Byron’s celebrity and the attendant excesses eventually exacted a toll — albeit by 19th-century standards, which both contrast and echo today’s tabloid headlines, minus any carriage-bumping paparazzi. Yet while “Byron” features a fine central perf by Jonny Lee Miller (“Trainspotting”) as the romantic poet, this lavish BBC production becomes sluggish in its second half and yields minimal insight into Byron’s tragic life beyond his lengthy roster of carnal conquests.
Fortunately, for those who can’t get enough of frolicking amid pomp and petticoats, there were plenty of conquests to chronicle. We initially meet Byron in his early 20s as he travels extensively in Turkey and Greece, omnivorously partaking of the local splendor before his money runs out.
Returning to England, he takes his first steps into poetry and almost instantly achieves a kind of rock-star status, making him the much-sought-after partner of every eligible lass in England.
Driven by his dark streak, Byron becomes torridly entangled with his married half-sister Augusta (Natasha Little), a woman as deeply in debt as he is. So at her urging he unhappily enters a marriage for money to the brainy Annabella (Julie Cox), whom he treats abysmally while pining for Augusta and taking various lovers.
Not surprisingly, Nick Dear’s script generously traffics in tart, sharply written dialogue debating man’s art and his imperfections, from the moment Byron is told he has “found that rare treasure: your own voice” to the poet’s disdainful comment, “I like a woman to talk, or I’m left with the suspicion that she’s thinking.”
What’s lacking, and understandably difficult to convey, is the talent and influence of Byron’s work on others (Mary Shelley is a minor character) as well as any kind of an arc to his hedonistic existence. This proves especially true in the fitfully eventful second act, where Byron watches his marriage dissolve, takes a languid trip to Italy and lets his hair go to seed.
The project is nevertheless distinguished by a strong cast, including Vanessa Redgrave as Lady Melbourne, who takes an interest in Byron but cannot save him from his worst, most self-destructive impulses.
It’s always nice, of course, to be reminded that there was ample debauchery and bodice-ripping among the decadent aristocracy in the old days — you know, before television — but “Byron” accomplishes only half its job. A BBC exec dubbed it “a radical, anti-establishment, historical drama,” and it does provide a good sense of the man and his era. What’s less clear are the poetic contributions that explain why we’re watching three hours devoted to him 180 years after his death.