“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.”
Julien Temple is a British director best known for his involvement in the music video arena. To date his career has been book-ended by two documentaries about the rock group, The Sex Pistols. The first in 1980 was The Great Rock ‘n Roll Swindle, while the recent return to the subject was 2000’s The Filth and the Fury. In between, he worked on music videos for many of the top music groups or individuals of the 1980s and 1990s — Rolling Stones (he was involved in their 1991 IMAX effort At the Max), Duran Duran, David Bowie, Whitney Houston, and so on. He has also directed several feature films over the same period, often with musical themes. A recent departure was 2000’s Pandaemonium, which has now been released in Canada on DVD by Seville Pictures.
The later years of the 18th century are a time of agitation for parliamentary and constitutional reform in Britain. The cause brings together many of the intellectual and artistic elite of the time — people such as writers like Thomas Hardy and John Thelwall, and poets like Robert Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth. The latter two particularly find themselves drawn to each other and Coleridge finds poetic inspiration in Wordsworth’s presence. Initially, the two of them contribute to a joint publishing effort, but it soon becomes clear that Coleridge is the more gifted of the pair. The two drift apart as Wordsworth seems content to turn out a series of pastoral poems that seemingly suggest little artistic growth. Coleridge, by this time addicted to opium, is creating cutting-edge material and has turned to Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy for inspiration. Time passes, Coleridge sinks deeper into a total dependence on opium, and Dorothy is cast aside. Then the poetic community gathers together for the announcement of the country’s new poet laureate, a post that Wordsworth fully expects will be his.
This is a most unusual film that is a trifle slow to gather momentum, but becomes quite an entertaining experience once it does. The idea of the subject matter doesn’t initially excite; after all, for most people, the trials of two poets who were contemporaries in the late 18th and early 19th century doesn’t seem like the stuff of great drama. Which just goes to show how little most people know, yours truly included. Not that what we are seeing is all true or even mostly true, but the basic facts are correct. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth were contemporaries and Coleridge did have an opium addiction problem. Was Coleridge the hero and Wordsworth the villain? Probably not, but the artistic license taken in Pandaemonium certainly bends history in an interesting way and the execution is admirable for the most part.
Coleridge is certainly portrayed as a poetic genius in the film, even if it is a genius fueled by opium. One of the most exciting aspects of Pandaemonium is the way it takes us into Coleridge’s mind as he visualizes the events that he shapes into two of his most famous poems — “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” The jumping-off points for Coleridge are an expanse of tidal mud-flats and a garden terrarium respectively, but there are other triggers which mixed with his opium-clouded thoughts develop his ideas for the poems more fully. They also, however, often leave him in agony when he feels he has written himself into a corner with no obvious way out. Initially, Wordsworth acts almost as a catalyst that helps Coleridge out of his difficulties, but eventually, Wordsworth is supplanted by his own sister, Dorothy. Meanwhile, Wordsworth is portrayed as first suffering from writer’s block and later as little more than a run-of-the-mill poetic wordsmith whose best lines come from others. For example, we get the amusing vignette of Wordsworth and his sister walking in the hills. He utters, “I wandered lonely as a cow,” only to have his sister reply “Hmm, ‘cloud’ would be better, William.” If nothing else, it’s rather clear where the director’s sympathies lie when it comes to suggesting which of the two poets is the greater one.
Director Temple makes Pandaemonium a very effective-looking film with some lovely colourful vistas of the Lake Country nicely contrasted with the more contained and washed-out images from Coleridge’s mind. The framing sequence of the poets gathered for the poet laureate announcement is well-used to send Coleridge out a door to tell the story of what has gone before and then suddenly bringing him back in through that same door as a way to escape what has become a horrifying past and return him to the present. There are some missteps with the rather pretentious use of modern symbols such as a contrail at one point, what looks like the image of a nuclear power plant at another, and a questionable modern sequence during the end credits, but those are small quibbles.
Some of Britain’s finest young actors are on display. Linus Roache (particularly good in 1997’s Wings of the Dove) plays Coleridge with a tortured intensity, while John Hannah (familiar from Four Weddings And A Funeral and The Mummy, but also well-known in Britain for his appearances as Ian Rankin’s Detective Inspector John Rebus) delivers a nicely understated William Wordsworth. Samantha Morton (Minority Report) does well with the less flashy role of Coleridge’s wife, Sara. Most impressive of them all is Sarah Woof (The Full Monty) as a quiet yet intense Dorothy Wordsworth, whose love for Coleridge is frustrated but pays off in an unexpected way in the end.
Seville Pictures’ Canadian DVD release is a mixed blessing. The image retains the original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1 (a plus compared to the previously available American DVD full-frame release from USA Films Home Video), but it is not anamorphically enhanced. Despite that, the results are quite pleasing-looking. The image is generally sharp and clear with good shadow detail. The transfer manages a fairly film-like look with little edge enhancement noticeable. Parts of the film appear to have had the colour drained out of them intentionally by the director, but where that’s not the case, the colours are nicely rendered.
We are provided with three Dolby Digital sound tracks — English and French ones in stereo, and an English one in 5.1 surround. The latter has some good isolated surround effects, although LFE are not particularly noticeable. Otherwise, the mix sounds quite rich with both dialogue and the sometimes eerie Dario Marianelli (whom I’m not familiar with) score effectively delivered. There is no subtitling nor closed captioning provided.
The supplements include a seven-minute making-of featurette that includes footage from the film interspersed with interviews with the director and main players. It provides modest insight at best. The film’s theatrical trailer and trailers for three other Seville DVD releases (Late Marriage, In The Mood For Love, Vidocq) round out the disc.
Pandaemonium is more than just another period piece. It covers a little-known subject with style and panache rather than strict historical accuracy. Featuring a quartet of fine performances and a refreshing approach to the lure of fine poetry, the film is entertainment that’s just a little bit different and well worth two hours of your time. Seville’s DVD release makes the film look pretty good, although the lack of an anamorphic transfer is disappointing. Presumably, though, that’s all USA Films made available to Seville. Nonetheless, I recommend the DVD to anyone looking for something a little different.