Dramatizing the lives of beloved writers is always problematic, because the act of writing itself is so inherently un-dramatic. Nonetheless, writer-director William Nunez’s “The Laureate” manages to eke a fairly engrossing tale from the complicated personal lives of creatives surrounding “I, Claudius” author Robert Graves (Tom Hughes) in England’s Roaring ’20s. Well-acted, nicely crafted and a handsome period piece within modest means, this isn’t the most novel, memorable or intellectually deep enterprise of its type. But it will satisfy viewers looking for a slightly racier variation on “Downton Abbey” terrain. Gravitas Ventures is opening it on a couple dozen U.S. screens Jan. 21.
A framing device here is a notorious 1929 incident in which more than one participant in a domestic ménage leaped from a fourth-floor London window. After an ambiguous introduction of that event, as well as Graves’ serious PTSD from WWI service (during which he was officially declared dead at one point, and his family duly notified), we rewind a bit earlier to the Oxfordshire home dubbed “World’s End” he shared with feminist painter-illustrator wife Nancy Nicholson (Laura Haddock) and their young daughter Catherine (Indica Watson). (That couple’s other children are omitted from this depiction.)
The floppy-haired poet is already a respected scribe with several published volumes to his name. But it’s not the kind of fame that pays household bills, and he’s on the verge of reluctantly accepting a teaching position when something read in a literary magazine jars his case of writer’s block. Hoping to end the “dry spell” that is (along with lingering combat-flashback terrors) causing him such grief, Nancy encourages American author Laura Riding (Dianna Argon) to visit them. She soon does, sweeping in less like a breath than a gale of fresh air. To the prudish disapproval of Robert’s parents (briefly seen Patricia Hodge and Julian Glover), this flamboyant flapper moves in as writing collaborator and ostensible child tutor. It doesn’t take long before she’s also moved into more intimate relations with both wife and husband.
But Laura is the kind of “free spirit” who exacts a toll on others, building dependencies she then manipulates with a fickleness driven by resentment. Despite Robert’s endorsement, her own poetry is derided by much of the literary establishment, including his close allies T.S. Eliot (Christien Anholt) and Siegfried Sassoon (Timothy Renouf).
When he and Laura move full-time to London to fulfill his book-contract obligations — but also her career ambitions — the splintered domestic loyalties are further complicated by her taking a new lover in Irish aspiring poet Geoffrey Phibbs (Fra Fee). The wife and child’s eventual arrival adds yet more destabilizing tension to an “arrangement” that Nancy’s voiceover narration had earlier proudly termed “a modern relationship without any regards to the formal conventions of society.”
These people were terribly complex, and even amid its quite-ample intrigue, “The Laureate” makes some simplifying choices. (Among the casualties are Graves’ bisexuality, much downplayed here, as well as acknowledgment that Phibbs already had a legal spouse in Dublin.) This sort of private-lives-of-the-bohemian-literati enterprise can easily become too sensationalized and/or high-minded, with real-life characters alternately reciting and smoldering at each other. Yet between a degree of tastefully titillating content and original texts excerpted, Nunez attains a viable balance that works in dramatic terms.
If we still don’t get much feel for just where the 1934 “I, Claudius” (or other popular historical novels their author considered mere commercial work) came from, that may be fodder for a different film — God knows the real-life models’ personal lives continued to attract tumult into the ensuing decade and beyond. You probably wouldn’t guess just where or how they moved on after the period shown, though perhaps that was more clearly portended in an earlier cut than the U.S. release version. (Some reports suggest the film was several minutes longer when it festival-premiered last fall.) What “The Laureate” does manage is a vivid, if occasionally hyperbolic, sense of how Graves’ lingering psychological war wounds led to the catharsis of classic 1929 tome “Goodbye to All That,” a memoir whose blunt indictments won him both wide acclaim and some furious denunciations.
The principal players make strong contributions, most notably Argon of “Glee” as a borderline-vamp caricature whose theatricality turns out to cloak considerable neurotic frailty, and Fee as the anti-sophisticate who attracts Laura for his naiveté and Nancy for his decency. Shot in just 22 days, the film achieves an admirably plush though not over-groomed feel on its well-chosen locations, with fine contributions from cinematographer Adam Barnett, production designer Natalie O’Connor and Helen Beaumont’s costumes.