10 great films about poets

From Pyaasa to Paterson. As Terence Davies’ Siegfried Sassoon biopic Benediction arrives in cinemas, we wax lyrical about poetry on screen.

Benediction (2021)

Capturing the creative process on screen is a difficult business. The life and works of a poet present a particular challenge. When the goal is to cinematically encapsulate the essence of poetry itself – the beauty of the verse, the meaning of the metre, the reason of the rhyme – showing a poet writing at their desk is very rarely profound or exhilarating. 

Middling costume-drama star vehicles are often little more than by-the-numbers biopics. Matthew Rhys was implausible as Dylan Thomas in The Edge of Love (2008), Gwyneth Paltrow’s Sylvia (2003) failed to capture Plath’s intensity, and while Daniel Radcliffe gave his best young Allen Ginsberg impression, Kill Your Darlings (2013) did nothing nearly as daring as the poets it depicts. Adaptations of the work of William Shakespeare – the most famous poet in the English language – are numerous, but when the life of the bard himself is tackled, the results are usually disappointing. Shakespeare in Love (1998) gets a pass, yet All Is True (2018) and Anonymous (2011) both rang hollow. 

In recent years, however, a notable number have hit the mark. Two of them have been directed by Terence Davies. Always known for his lyrical tone in films such as Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and Of Time and the City (2008), Davies first turned to actual poetry in 2016’s Emily Dickinson portrait A Quiet Passion. Now he’s back with Benediction, a biopic of the war poet Siegfried Sassoon.

To celebrate its release, we put pen to paper to come up with some of the best films about poets, real and fictional.

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Orphée (1950)

Director: Jean Cocteau

Orphée (1950)

The centrepiece of Jean Cocteau’s Orphic trilogy (bookended by 1932’s Le Sang d’un poète and 1960’s La Testament d’Orphée), this classic of French cinema is a fantastical study of the role of the modern poet and their place in this world… and the next. A dreamlike retelling of the Greek myth, it casts the eponymous hero (played by Jean Marais) as a successful but anguished poet in postwar Paris, obsessing over both the value of his work and his own fragile mortality. 

Cocteau’s fantasy is noted for its inventive style and astonishing visual effects, from the shimmering mirror as entrance to the underworld to the jump cuts as the dead move through the world of the living. Our beatnik wordsmith will follow Death (María Casares) into the next world: a ‘zone’ made up of “memories and the ruins of men”. These scenes were shot in a bombed-out military academy. The recent memory of the Second World War envelopes the film, giving it an additional charge of melancholy and the macabre.

Pyaasa (1957)

Director: Guru Dutt

Pyaasa (1957)

Directed, produced by and starring the legendary cult figure Guru Dutt in his major role, this Calcutta-set musical melodrama tells the story of struggling poet Vijay, whose attempts to gain professional recognition are coming to nothing; his political writing is dismissed by editors as a “crusade against hunger and unemployment”. Humiliated and scorned by his brothers, he loses hope until he meets Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman), a street worker who falls for both him and his poetry.

With passionate performances and gorgeous songs by S.D. Burman, Dutt’s film is a transcendent example of Hindi cinema of the 1950s. It’s both tragically romantic and potently political, as Vijay must make personal sacrifices in his fight to follow his artistic dream and live in a world that seems forever against him.

The Colour of Pomegranates (1969)

Director: Sergei Parajanov

The Colour of Pomegranates (1969)

Sergei Parajanov’s celebrated classic is a spectacular feast for the eyes. A rare example of the words and works of a poet being conjured on screen, it’s an artful portrait of 18th-century Armenian poet Sayat Nova. The opening cards state that the film “does not attempt to tell the life story of a poet” but to “recreate the poet’s inner world through the trepidations of his soul”, which it does with symbolic images of death, religion and art staged in elaborate tableaux.

Intercut with title cards featuring his verse, the visuals are breathtaking, though in its way the striking use of sound is no less dazzling: we hear the sploshing of water, ticking clocks and the pages of ancient texts crackling loudly in the wind. Widely admired by other filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky and Martin Scorsese, Parajanov’s film has also inspired numerous music videos, including ‘Losing My Religion’ by R.E.M. and ‘911’ by Lady Gaga.

Roxanne (1987)

Director: Fred Schepisi

Roxanne (1987)

Among Steve Martin’s best films, Roxanne is a 1980s spin on the oft-portrayed poet, duelist and wit Cyrano de Bergerac. Martin is C.D. ‘Charlie’ Bales, a small-town fire chief who falls in love with the new girl in town, astronomy student Roxanne (Daryl Hannah). But for all his way with words and skills with a sword (or tennis racket), his big nose means he lacks the confidence to pursue her.

Martin’s own screenplay sticks reasonably closely to the plot of Edmond Rostand’s original 1897 play (aside from the happy ending), at the same time providing the perfect showcase for his comedic timing and sharp dialogue. Charlie’s skills with pen and paper are a triumph as he woos Roxanne on behalf of dimwitted fireman Chris (Rick Rossovich), before she eventually realises who she really loves. Seen today, there’s still plenty of charm to this literary update, with real chemistry between the two unlikely lovers.

Bright Star (2009)

Director: Jane Campion

Bright Star (2009)

Jane Campion’s luscious, melancholic film tells the story of John Keats’ (Ben Whishaw) three-year romance with his muse and neighbour Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) as they contend with illness, poverty and Keats’ friend, poet and romantic adversary, the braying Mr Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider). The pair discuss Keats’ works and the nature of poetry itself as they fall in love across the changing seasons in Hampstead Village. 

Much of the film is set outside, with the rustle of trees, falling of blossom and buzzing throng of insects providing a fitting, tactile setting; it was his appreciation for pastoral natural beauty that marked Keats out among his fellow Romantics. Whishaw and Cornish embody the heightened emotions that figure in so much of Keats’ own works. Their impassioned romance becomes ever more devastating as tragedy creeps closer.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Director: Raoul Peck

I am Not Your Negro (2016)

One of cinema’s most lyrical documentaries and an essential piece of political cinema, Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated film is derived from the erudite words of novelist, activist, essayist and poet James Baldwin and is an imagined completion of his unfinished memoir Remember This House. The film is narrated with gravitas by Samuel L. Jackson, showcasing Baldwin’s magnificent use of language: thoughtful, angry and extremely funny. 

Entirely comprised of archive footage, Peck’s film is an insightful examination into race and injustice, skilfully conveying language’s power to stimulate and stir. It weaves together the lives and tragic assassinations of Baldwin’s friends Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Medgar Evers as it traces the Black experience throughout America’s dark past. Film, history and politics come together with Baldwin’s poetic thoughtfulness, and there is nothing more electric. 

Neruda (2016)

Director: Pablo Larraín

Neruda (2016)

Before his idiosyncratic portraits of Jackie Kennedy (Jackie, 2016) and Princess Diana (Spencer, 2021), Pablo Larraín first dodged biopic conventions with this portrayal of the charismatic Pablo Neruda – senator, poet and “the most important communist in the world”. A significant figure in the resistance against Chilean fascism, we first find him luxuriating in bourgeois decadence before embarking on an elaborate cat-and-mouse chase across late-1940s Chile.

As a period crime caper, it’s stylish, sharp and wryly funny, with a deadpan narrative voiceover from chief antagonist Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) – the policeman on his trail and the unreliable narrator blurring the lines between fiction and reality. He’s been ordered to catch and humiliate the famous poet, to take away his gravitas and the power of his words among the workers. As a depiction of an anguished poet with an unapologetic ego, it embraces its subject matter with empathy and wit, and Luis Gnecco is marvellous as a man shrouded in conflict and unease.

Paterson (2016)

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Paterson (2016)

In Paterson, Adam Driver plays the eponymous bus driver and poet, living out his daily routine in the strange and idiosyncratic world of Jim Jarmusch. Throughout the course of a week in the small New Jersey town that shares his name, Paterson listens to the conversations of his passengers, takes his dog for a walk, stops for a drink, and scribbles poems down. They appear across the screen, and we hear them carefully form in Driver’s mellifluous voiceover.

Like the film, Paterson is quiet and thoughtful. There is profundity in the mundane details that he captures in verse. His partner, Laura, is played with an enormous amount of charm by Golshifteh Farahani. Jarmusch’s film is also a rare portrait of a writer that contradicts the dangerous myth that significant art must result from the anguish of a tortured artist; that pain itself creates great poetry. It’s a positive reinforcement of what love, art and life can be, and a meditative study of the creative process as a non-toxic act.

A Quiet Passion (2016)

Director: Terence Davies

A Quiet Passion (2016)

Terence Davies’ first poet biopic elegantly grapples with the mournful life of American poet Emily Dickinson. Cynthia Nixon gives a remarkably empathetic performance, playing her at first with carefree wit and, later, a pinched fragility as she becomes lonelier in her reclusive years. Her poetry descends from hopeful naivety to bitter sorrow.

When James Baldwin was asked what he liked about Dickinson, he replied, “her solitude and the style of that solitude”. This is what Davies captures with beautiful ease. His placing of the camera frames the interiors Dickinson spent so much time in with a perfect sense of stillness, an artful background to the creation of poems that Dickinson used as a cry against the patriarchal prejudices of the time. Expressing the injustices of her lifetime, including religious oppression, war, death, loss and sexual frustration, her works went sadly unrecognised for years.

Benediction (2021)

Director: Terence Davies

Benediction (2021)

Davies’ latest exploration of life, death and sexuality is an achingly moving biopic of First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon. In non-chronological fashion, Benediction follows him from his time as an anti-war activist and a brief but significant encounter with Wilfred Owen, through to the decadent age of the Bright Young Things, and then finally to his conversion to Catholicism and his relationship with eventual wife Hester, and a doomed life of lonely pretence. Jack Lowden gives a nuanced and steely performance as the young man, while Peter Capaldi plays out his older, angry years with a bitter surliness.

While the themes of longing and regret are prominent, they’re alleviated by a playful tone and cuttingly witty script, the barbed dialogue gleefully performed by Jeremy Irvine as Ivor Novello, one of Siegfried’s lovers. And while there is nothing particularly daring in reciting Sassoon’s poems through voiceover, Davies’ pairing of visuals (especially archive war footage) and words elevates the verse to something more cinematic, with a desperate depiction of fractured humanity and lost souls.

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