With International Dylan Thomas day having just passed, I deemed it high-time to take a look at a movies that have dared to delve into the backstories of literary icons…and done it rather well.
Originally published on Top 10 Films.
1. Capote (Bennett Miller, US, 2005)
The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman took home an Oscar for his expertly-calibrated performance as Truman Capote. Based on the research process that produced the controversial novel In Cold Blood, director Bennett Miller (of Foxcatcher fame) shows precision and integrity in his handling of the material, producing a film at once pervasively tense and quietly hypnotic. Hoffman captures the charm and power of the unparalleled Capote to electrifying effect, but the film never shies away from depicting the darker underbelly that facilitated his success. Capote dazzles not just as a character study of the immensely complex, and compulsive author but also as a fascinating look at the relationship between a writer and his subject, and a rare entity in the biopic canon in that it avoids idolatry.
2. Bright Star (Jane Campion, UK, 2009)
Jane Campion proves herself a force to be reckoned with in this wistful and melancholic rendering of the unconsummated romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish are the literary love-birds whose relationship seems doomed from the outset. Still, for the all the tragedy, Campion’s film is disarmingly beautiful, bursting with colour, restless camera movements, lingering close-ups and of course, Keats’ spirited poetry.
3. The End Of The Tour (James Ponsoldt, US, 2015)
Not a biopic of David Foster Wallace, insomuch as a rendezvous with the idea of him. Based on David Lipsky’s memoir of his five-day interview with Wallace for Rolling Stone during the tour for the eccentric novelist’s magnum opus Infinite Jest, The End Of The Tour is essentially an extended conversation, but an illuminating, meditative and ferocious one at that. Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg (harkening back to the rapid-fire dialogue he perfected in The Social Network) turn in career-best work as the two David’s. This emotionally and intellectually charged two-hander is fuelled by their effervescent chemistry.
4. The Invisible Woman (Ralph Fiennes, UK, 2013)
A languidly-paced period drama that charts the intricacies of Charles Dickens’ extramarital relationship with ingénue Nelly Robinson, starring British acting pedigree Ralph Fiennes (also taking on the mantle as director) and rebel-trooper-in-waiting Felicity Jones. Sizzling with repressed desire and sideway glances, Fiennes shows a cunning eye for detail in his debut outing as director. With a keen grasp of the novelist’s talent and influence, as well as the era, The Invisible Woman makes for an aesthetically pleasing and engaging biopic.
5. Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock, US, 2013)
Delightfully campy and quippy, Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson go head-to-head as Walt Disney and PL Travers in this chronicle of how the Mary Poppins film came to be. The shiny, upbeat veneer is balanced by a poignant backstory giving credence to Poppins’ origins, where Colin Farrell does empathetic work as Travers’ alcoholic father. It’s twinkly-eyed, without ever pulling too mercilessly on the heartstrings, and who better than Hanks and Thompson to make the sparring go down sweeter. Magic.
6. Set Fire To The Stars (Andy Goddard, UK, 2014)
Exquisitely shot and elegantly staged, director Andy Goddard takes a monochromatic look at Dylan Thomas’ tour to New York in 1950, three years before his whiskey-fuelled death. Elijah Wood is doe-eyed academic John Brinnin, tasked with taming the beast, whilst Welsh-born Celyn Jones plays the poetic hell-raiser in question. What escalates is part bromance, part road-movie and though it never really digs beneath the surface of its characters, it remains a handsome snapshot of a bygone era and a beloved wordsmith.
7. Barfly (Barbet Schroeder, US, 1987)
Roger Ebert labelled Barfly one of the best films of 1987 and this semi-autobiographical tale of poet and author Charles Bukowski, is certainly an atmospheric paean to the sordid back-alleys and dive bars of 1980s LA. Worthy of mention for Mickey Rourke’s performance alone, his besmirched poet – a Bukowski type figure named Henry, as opposed to a direct invocation – is all the more resonant because you sense that the potential scuppered by way of alcohol abuse would come to haunt Rourke’s own career.
8. Big Sur (Michael Polish, US, 2013)
Infused with a pragmatic perspective, director Michael Polish doesn’t condemn the Beat generation, nor does he revere them. In this coalescing of Jack Kerouac’s novel with the real events that inspired it, Polish achieves an intriguingly complex and impressionistic portrait of an elusive, much-fabled literary figure. Majestic, surreal and meditative, it doesn’t quite capture the charismatic intensity attributed to Kerouac (Jean Marc-Barr), but at a pacy 70 minutes it plays with the hyperactive restlessness that the Beat generation were so seduced by.
9. The Edge Of Love (John Maybury, UK, 2008)
A fanciful, fleeting peek into a supposed ménage à trois between Dylan Thomas, his wife Caitlin and his childhood friend Vera. Matthew Rhys, Sienna Miller and Keira Knightley captivate as the bohemian trio who flock to the Welsh hills to escape the calamities of WW2. Director John Maybury has flagrantly assumed creative license; regardless it crackles with desire, tension and jealousy and conveys Thomas’ zest for life.
10. American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini, US, 2003)
Blending documentary, drama and animation what emerges from this unconventional portrait of underground comic-book artist Harvey Pekar, is something as engrossing as it is poignant. Considered a ‘blue-collar Mark Twain’, the film’s exploration of Pekar’s quotidian lifestyle allows his true originality to shine through. Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis have great fun as Pekar and his third wife Joyce Brabner, rivalling some of the great screwball partnerships of the 40s. Directed by real-life couple Berman & Pulcini, whose screenplay earned them an Oscar nomination, it hums with the kind of oddball creativity you imagine the real Pekar would’ve appreciated. Exhilaratingly subversive.