“The Laureate” is a biography of the “trinity” that the British poet, novelist and translator Robert Graves shared with his painter/illustrator wife, Nancy Nicholson and American poet, critic and essayist Laura Riding.
Writer-director William Nunez narrows the focus of the film to the few years this trio were together, and briefly joined by the fourth who made their “circle,” Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs. Nunez’s thesis is that the longest-surviving Great War poet — who went on to write the best-selling “I, Claudius,” the first “Lawrence of Arabia” biography, a classic WWI memoir “Goodbye to All That” and well-regarded Latin and Greek translations of ancient texts — might not have lived to tell those tales had it not been for this restorative menage a trois during the Roaring ’20s.
As highly-strung as the whole affair was — the story is framed inside a double suicide attempt — Graves, a bisexual before that word was in common use and a sufferer of what would later be labeled post traumatic stress disorder in the trenches of France, might not have lived to write his famous later works had not the sexually-assertive and literarily-provocative Riding fan-lettered her way into their lives.
It’s a sturdy film, well-acted, but without much in the way of flash. And the TV chat show producer Nunez (“The Beat with Ari Melber”) proves a somewhat pedestrian big-screen biographer, as “The Laureate” is not as meditative and self-consciously arty as one might have liked, a sort of less salacious and utterly humorless “Professor Marston & the Wonder Women” or “Henry & June.”
We meet Graves (Tom Hughes of TV’s “Victoria”) as he broods and shakes or screams off the waking nightmares of his service in the Great War. Graves, forelock of hair permanently over one eye, recites his poems in voice-over and frets to his friend and more famous contemporary Siegfried Sassoon (Timothy Renouf) that “war is not the end, but the beginning of violence.” And more’s the pity, because in the mid-20s “no one needs a ‘war poet’ any more.”
Graves is shell-shocked, broke, unemployed, married and a father. His wife and illustrator Nancy (Laura Haddock of “White Lines” and the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies) struggles to buck Mister “Yesterday’s News” up, but his issues are many and include sexual problems.
Then he hears from this America poet and critic, and they promptly invite her to move in with them.
“If you invite a serpent into your home,” Nancy narrates, “you perhaps shouldn’t be surprised if it bites you.”
Riding, played by “Glee” alumna Dianna Agron, is vivacious, assertive and all bedroom eyes when it comes to Robert, but charming and blunt with the feminist activist Nancy as well.
“Jewish girls like me are always at the bottom of the pile,” Riding complains. But she eavesdrops on their sexual struggles and even tempts their little girl — whom she’s meant to tutor — into taking dangerous risks. Riding plays the angles, surfs their social scene and hopes to be published by Robert’s friend, T.S. Eliot (Christien Anholt). Or perhaps Robert’s other publisher friend Jonathan Cape (Edward Bennett) will show an interest.
This much is certain. Riding yanked Graves out of his funk and back into writing and getting published, even as she tempted and bedded him, possibly his wife as well and certainly this Anglo-Irish poet Phibbs (Fra Fee) whom she meets and abruptly invites into their highly unorthodox jazz age “new world” living arrangement.
“If you’re not going to live with passion and instinct, you don’t belong in this new world!”
The film hews just close enough to the accepted parameters of the biographies of all involved to not merit ridicule, even if Nunez seems to take liberties here and there to sex things up a bit. Most involved lived long enough to contest and muddy the waters of their respective stories so that even the apparent double suicide attempt isn’t the only accepted explanation for two people ending up going out of the same fourth floor window.
Agron brings the sex appeal necessary for Riding to come off, Haddock is fine as the “mannish” long-suffering, lonely wife. Hughes makes just enough of impression to be convincing as a suffering but savable poet whose greatest glory would come from explaining, exploring and critiquing the poetic mind and creative process, writing he mostly did in collaboration with Riding.
But while “The Laureate” impresses here and there, there’s nothing that truly dazzles and little that sizzles, either. It’s dry and academic when a fleshier, more overtly-troubled and damaged approach to the story and the “experimenting” characters within it would have made it more memorable.
All up and down the line, from the performances to the period settings, the words that leap to mind time and again are “adequate” and “educational.” Nunez’s efforts leave the viewer with a big question to go with the many answers he provides. Was this really literary history’s most sexually lukewarm threesome?
Rating: R for sexual content, nudity and language
Cast: Dianna Agron, Tom Hughes, Fra Fee, Julian Glover,
Timothy Renouf, Christien Anholt and Laura Haddock
Credits: Scripted and directed by William Nunez. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:47