Film Review – The Laureate (2021)

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The life of a poet may not sound like prime material for a film and yet there have been many features on the subject. This fascination with the literati is helpfully inspired by the scandalous, private lives of the poets involved and luckily for The Laureate, its subject Robert Graves fits neatly into this unseemly category.

It is the mid nineteen twenties and Graves, played here by Tom Hughes, is going through a transitional period in his life. He is traumatised, both psychologically and creatively, by his experiences in the war and he suffers from flashbacks. He also feels that conventional war poetry is no longer needed. To inspire Graves to get his creative juices flowing again, he is encouraged by his wife Nancy Nicholson (Laura Haddock) to invite American poet Laura Riding (Dianna Agron) to come and stay with them. Neither has any idea that this situation will see the three of them become a menage a trois and then later a menage a quatre after the arrival of young, Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs (Fra Fee).

Whilst Graves and Nicholson’s relationships with Riding and Phibbs are undoubtedly true and well known, the rest of the film straddles the line between fact and fiction. For example, though The Laureate depicts Graves as being rather lost and struggling to work, in reality during this time he was extremely productive and working on several things. This type of detail can perhaps be forgiven when considering the story from a filmic perspective – Graves’ poet’s block is what encourages him and his wife to accept Riding into their home. However, there are other imagined details in The Laureate that are harder to absolve.

Particularly this is in relation to the depiction of Riding. Director and writer William Nunez imagines Riding as a temptress and seductress. She bed hops between the married couple, using her sexuality to control them. She flounces around in a negligee and when Phibbs rocks up, she cant wait to pounce on him too. In one scene, she encourages Graves and Nicholson’s young daughter to almost step out of a window. She is described as the snake that has slithered into the nest and you cannot be surprised if you get bitten.

This may make The Laureate sound like an erotic thriller, but the film is oddly dull. Throughout, though the film looks nice, and the performances are good, The Laureate never digs far enough below the surface to evoke any real interest. Every character fits into a certain box and stays there – Graves is the traumatised poet, Nicholson is the wife, Riding is the temptress and Phibbs is the good-looking newcomer. The audience never gets under the skin of anyone or gets to understand their motivations past Graves having a block and needing a muse. Combining this with how Nunez depicts Riding, and the film feels disappointingly misogynistic.

★★ 1/2

Drama, Thriller | UK, 2021 | 15 | 5th May 2023 (Cinema) 26th June 2023 (DVD)| Dazzler Media | Dir.William Nunez | Laura Haddock, Dianna Agron, Tom Hughes, Julian Glover, Derek Jacobi