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The Laureate (Film Review)

3 min read

Dazzler Media

By now, the author biopic has become a reliable mainstay in the world of indie cinema. Every couple of years, another writer is selected from the literary canon to have their journal entries and private correspondences poured over and transformed into screenplay format, to be forever immortalised on the DVD shelves of every secondary school English teacher worth their salt. It's an inevitable process, and the latest literary figure to receive this treatment in writer-director 's is war poet and historical novelist . Opening in the late-1920s, over a decade after his service in the Great War, we follow a rudderless and traumatised Graves () and his fiercely feminist wife Nancy Nicholson (), as they introduce a third person into their household, the enigmatic New York poet Laura Riding ().

This ménage à trois starts with the best of intentions, with the husband and wife even enlisting Laura's assistance in the tutelage of their young daughter, Catherine. This comes much to the chagrin of Robert's stiff upper lipped parents, played with equal stoic ease by Patricia Hodge and Julian Glover, two titans of stage and screen who are unfortunately criminally underutilised in their less than three minutes of screen time. However, as the novelty of Laura's advent wears off, sexual tensions sour and jealousy starts to swirl, as well as suggestions that Ms. Riding's motivations are more manipulative than they are virtuous. With PTSD, polyamory, and promiscuous party-going, The Laureate might be a touch too salacious for the average GCSE English lesson, but not nearly as rousing as its premise promises.

Dazzler Media

The world Nunez builds is undeniably easy on the eye, from the quaint scenery of Robert and Laura's Oxfordshire cottage to Laura's charming styling under the expert hand of costume designer Helen Beaumont. Her bright bohemian dresses and lavish adornments of fur coats, fitted gloves, and stacks of beaded necklaces provide a welcome pop of colour in the backdrop of more muted tones, enhancing the credibility of Laura's ability to bewitch all those who cross her path. While visually pleasant, The Laureate fails to be visually striking when it needs to be. The camera movement often feels abstracted from what's actually going on in the scene, frequently remaining static and withdrawn even at the height of intimacy and passion. 

A careful, hesitant distance is a suitable characterisation for Nunez's approach to this potentially enthralling narrative. For a film about a threesome who were so strikingly ahead of their time, dealing with matters like male mental health and non-monogamous relationships that would still seem just as fresh in a twenty-first century drama, the writer-director plays it way too safe. The approach often feels quite paint-by-numbers, with Graves' post-war trauma represented with the same old unspecific imagery of foggy trenches and scattered soil we've seen a hundred times before. The onset of affection between Robert and Laura is presented through a particularly clichéd scene that you can find in the most textbook of rom coms, such as 2018's The Kissing Booth, where the pair are repainting a room together and — you'll never guess it – they have a giggly, intimate paint fight!

 

Dazzler Media

The most exciting part of The Laureate is undoubtedly Dianna Agron's utterly beguiling performance. The actor, best known for her tenure as cheerleader Quinn Fabray on television's Glee, competently balances the peaks and troughs of her character's mental instability, exhibiting sinister-edged seduction with occasional glimpses of dissociative vulnerability. With this performance and her turn in 2020's Shiva Baby, Agron is building up a quietly enthralling career in independent cinema, proving her dramatic depth once again.

What is overwhelmingly evident is the potential The Laureate had to be something way more stirring and emotionally potent. What could have been a psychosexual melodrama, rife with tensions equal parts sexual and hostile, ended up being a slightly more sensual period piece that failed to tread any new ground. 

 

The Laureate is available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and Download-to-Own from 26th June