Gilbey on Film: from bard to verse

What happens when movies take on poetry?

There's blood on the escritoires over at the Poetry Society. It has been in turmoil for some weeks following multiple resignations, and now there is the suspension of public funds by the Arts Council to contend with -- all in the wake of what the Independent described as a "power struggle" between its former director and the editor of Poetry Review.

What, you may ask, has all this got to do with cinema? Well, I was thinking that we might at last have the germ of a decent film about poetry here -- a back-stabbing Social Network-type affair (Hang 'Em Haiku? Stanza and Deliver?) that could make up for decades of incompatibility between these two art forms, poetry and cinema.

It's common for a film to earn the compliment of being called poetic, but when it comes to engaging with poetry itself, the two art forms feel uniquely out of sync with one another. Whenever cinema and poetry meet, the liaison is invariably punctuated by yawning silences where neither party knows exactly what to say or how to say it. The most visionary directors -- such as Jane Campion in Bright Star -- have caught the essence of verse, but committing the medium itself to film is as simple as nailing two eggs together. Dead Poets Society, Tom & Viv, Poetic Justice and significant parts of the recent Howl -- all have failed to render the passion of poetry without lapsing into the prosaic. At least the version of Walt Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric" set to music in the 1980 film Fame had youthful sincerity on its side.

Lee Chang-Dong's new film Poetry is an exception: it shows that poetry (and, by extension, art) can form part of a person's very survival. Mija (Yoon Jeong-Hee), a woman in her sixties recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's, enrols in a poetry class as a way of holding on to the language that has begun cruelly to desert her. So far, so Hollywood -- sign up Sally Field for the remake.

But where Poetry differs from that formula is in denying the audience an emotional spectacle or catharsis; at the very moment when you might expect poetry as a force to inspire the film's characters to climb upon their desks proclaiming "O Captain! My Captain!", it is reined in, the better to underline Mija's private transformation. Writing poetry changes her (and I will leave viewers of the film to see exactly what form that change takes), but the picture shows how the most momentous internal revolutions often register as no more than a ripple on the surface.

Michael Radford's 1995 Il Postino is not in the same league at all but it does at least argue for the importance of poetry in everyday life. It shows how poetry can be woven into us, and into our lives, whether or not we choose to recognise it; a rose by any other name, and all that jazz. Perhaps that's one of the keys to making a good, unself-conscious film about poetry: to give the words their proper context, to show the life unfolding around them. That's undoubtedly where Bright Star excels. Campion handles John Keats's poems with special informality. The first excerpt to reach our ears -- the opening stanza of Endymion ("A thing of beauty is a joy for ever") -- is delivered in a child's halting, sing-song voice, before her older sister snatches the book from her hands and silently completes the reading herself.

As Keats, Ben Whishaw is endearingly nervy, free of the reassuring hindsight with which so much period drama is played. A.O Scott in the New York Times wrote that viewers should "stay until the very last bit of the end credits, not necessarily to read the name of each gaffer and grip, but rather to savour every syllable of Mr. Whishaw's recitation of 'Ode to a Nightingale.'" High praise.

Poetry opens on Friday.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution