British writers

I realize it’s the season which sparks all sorts of commentaries on what makes for ‘good summer reading.’ But what about a variation on that idea and a venture into good summer viewing. To keep with the literary idea, let’s say films about celebrated authors. Seeing “The Edge of Love” last month at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater and being captivated by its provocative treatment of two women in Dylan Thomas’ love life, I began to think of all manner of films whose protagonists were British-Welsh-Scottish literary figures. Some are joyfully light-hearted like “Shakespeare in Love” (1999) and the Gilbert and Sullivan-inspired “Topsy-Turvy” (2000). Others are serious, such as “Iris,” (2001) which treats the relationship between Iris Murdoch and her husband as the noted author sinks into dementia. Judi Dench’s portrayal of Murdoch’s decline was remarkable, and Jim Broadbent as her distraught spouse won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance. Another beautifully acted and touching British-author picture is “Shadowlands,” (1993), a film about writer and Oxford don C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) who is drawn into life and out of a reclusive existence by American poet Joy Gresham (Debra Winger.)The film’s finale is deeply moving.There have been three fictional screen narratives about the unusual life of Oscar Wilde. “The Trials of Oscar Wilde” with Peter Finch and “Oscar Wilde” starring Robert Morley were both released in 1960. Each centered on Wilde’s libel suit against the Marquis of Queensbury and on Wilde’s own trial for sodomy. The more recent “Wilde” (1998) was almost painfully intimate as it recounted the playwright’s conflicting roles as writer-wit, husband, father and companion to young Lord Alfred Douglas. Stephen Fry, portraying Wilde, looks a great deal like the man he plays on screen.Somewhat of a similar ilk, I think, is “Carrington,” (1995) a fictional narrative about the real-life and always-fascinating Bloomsbury Group, which included among its coterie the homosexual writer Lytton Strachey. Various members of the Group are treated in the film with the principal plotting arc constructed around Strachey (Jonathan Pryce) and his relationship with painter Dora Carrington (Emma Thompson).Of much lighter tailoring is “Finding Neverland” (2004). This film about Scottish writer J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) is set in early twentieth-century London, where Barrie’s creative energies as a playwright have dried up—much to his and his producer’s consternation. Fortuitously, an evolving relationship with a widow (Kate Winslet) and her fatherless children acts to stimulate Barrie’s imagination. As he plays with and entertains the children, the idea for a spirited youth-oriented fantasy comes to mind. The result was “Peter Pan.” The film’s charm resides in the way it reveals how the creative mind can take incidental moments in human relationships and translate them into theatrical enterprise of the most magical kind.The feel-good biographical picture “Miss Potter” (2006) begins with the story of 30-year-old Londoner Beatrix Potter (Renee Zellweger), an independent-minded woman who has rejected the idea that becoming a wife is the key to personal fulfillment. Moving to the countryside, the plot shifts to Potter’s development as a writer and colorful nature painter. As her writing career develops, so too does her relationship with her publisher Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor). The film creates a character study about a woman of independence, determination, and lasting commitment to the area where she lived and worked (Potter bought great expanses of land in her beloved Lake District and donated them to the National Trust.) “The Edge of Love” (2008) takes place during World War II. Its principal characters are the poet Dylan Thomas (Matthew Rhys), his wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller), and their friends Vera and William Killick (Keira Knightley and Cillian Murphy). Thomas, alternately charming and off-putting, was Vera’s first love. When the two meet again in an underground shelter where Vera is a singer, it becomes immediately clear that the flame has not died out. Vera also meets William in the underground shelter and marries him just before he goes off to war. She discovers that she is pregnant and convinces the Thomases to move with her to the Welsh coast to await her child’s birth and her husband’s return. There they live side by side in small bungalows. The trio become caught up in relationships that are alternately loving and emotionally and sexually tense. Barely hidden jealousies and tempers come to the surface when William returns and discovers that Vera has withdrawn money from his account and given it to the needy Thomases. Violence erupts and ultimately friendships are shattered and betrayed. “The Edge of Love” synopsis implies a familiar story in which a famous poet resides at the center while two women stand close by. But this is no typical ménage a trois; rather it is a film that openly and honestly captures the bohemian life-style of four young people at a particularly engaging time in their less than conventional lives. While the British literary bio-pic can’t be declared a genre, these films do seem to have one thing in common. Close personal relationships provide the dramatic arcs that impel the stories, producing insights into the private and professional worlds of the author-protagonists. And like a good docudrama with its imaginative treatment of history and known personalities, the presence of a celebrated literary figure in a film is in itself the spark that can ignite the drama and lure the viewer.

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