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The writing process is notoriously difficult to portray captivatingly onscreen, and “The Laureate,” a bio-drama about British war poet and author Robert Graves, is no exception. But when a film like this, which aims to immerse us in a bygone world of creative inspiration and production, cannot sufficiently capture the courage, joy and catharsis of artistic achievement, it undermines much of its potential power.
That’s not to say “The Laureate,” from writer-producer-director William Nunez, isn’t often watchable because it effectively recreates the Roaring Twenties — and the flashes of World War I — on a shoestring budget. The story of Graves (Tom Hughes) and his romantic and emotional entanglements, as he sets out to regain his poetic mojo after a career-threatening drought, moves in twisty and unpredictable directions – unless, of course. , whether you’ve ever read his acclaimed 1929 autobiography, “Goodbye to All That.”
The film is nicely framed by a spoken letter that Graves’ illustrator wife, Nancy Nicholson (Laura Haddock), writes to him to reflect on their unconventional relationship. “If you invite a snake into your house, maybe you shouldn’t be surprised if it bites you,” she claims grimly at first. This leads him to reminisce about the arrival of said troublemaker, New York poet Laura Riding (Dianna Agron), whom Graves and Nicholson ask to stay with them in their English cottage (aka World’s End) after being impressed by his work in a literary magazine. . The hope: that Riding will be able to motivate the stranded Graves and even write with him.
As presented here, it’s a reckless and short-sighted proposition but, well, desperate times and all.
The vibrant, unbridled riding rushes into the lives of Graves and Nicholson — and their young daughter, Catherine (Indica Watson) — like a literary Mary Poppins. She soon has the place buzzing with wit and creativity and, before you can say ‘muse and lover’, is sleeping with Graves and Nicholson – both together and apart. Nothing like a bit of modern love to shake off the cobwebs and make a poet rewrite.
But a disturbing sequence between Riding and the impressionable Catherine lets us know that all is not well with the American’s psyche and that the nirvana that blossoms in World’s End may be short-lived.
The action moves to London, where Graves moves in with Riding after being hired to write the biography of British archaeologist TE Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia). But Riding, to the dismay of Graves’ cohorts of writers like TS Eliot (Christian Anholt) and Siegfried Sassoon (Timothy Renouf), becomes particularly brash and controlling as they party through the big city.
The horseback riding eventually draws aspiring Irish poet Geoffrey (Fra Fee) into what she calls Graves and her “sacred circle” – and another threesome is born. Reenter Nicholson to shift the dynamics of this increasingly tense troika and recalibrate its own uncertain future.
Unfortunately, the film loses its focus early on, as Riding and her manipulations drive much of the action and Graves’ ambitions get a bit lost in the reshuffling. While Riding is a first-rate provocateur and seductress, her underlying motivations often seem unclear. He’s a character that largely floats along the surface, and Agron doesn’t probe any unscripted dimension.
Hughes lends Graves a worthy mix of elan and sensibility, though the strange war trauma that afflicts the poet years later tends to hamper his performance rather than inform him.
Haddock proves the beating heart of the play, infusing his role with quiet strength, determination and fairness; neither a brave enabler nor a long-suffering victim, but something fresher and more heroic. Maybe she should have been the real focus of the movie.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.