Nights at the Villa Deodati #3: Byron and Shelley Go Boating

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ROWING WITH THE WIND by Gonzalo Suarez (1988) is the least-known of the three major Mary Shelley biopics released in the second half of the eighties, and in some ways the best. In other ways, unfortunately, it might be the worst. Somehow cutting all three versions together might produce one really good film.

To clarify, I guess I should attempt to compile plus and minus columns for this picture. In the demerits, I list —

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  1. Hugh Grant. Quite unable to suggest the kind of bastard Byron unquestionably was, nor yet the kind of genius he was, Grant relies on his light comedy skills to conjure some entertainment, but it’s at the expense of credibility and drama.
  2. Liz Hurley. It’s axiomatic that Hurley’s appearance in any film can only signal one thing: somebody didn’t care enough.
  3. The script, which plays fast and loose with history to a quite unacceptable degree.
  4. The film-making, which has no conception of suspense and allows the nominally scary stuff to just lie there and die there.

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But to balance these colossal handicaps, the film has a number of things very much in its favour —

  1. Hugh Grant, who is genuinely funny, and signals the film’s willingness to be lighthearted as well as dour. In this he’s immeasurably aided by first-rate clowning from Ronan Vibert as a comedy manservant who would look at home in a James Whale picture.
  2. Liz Hurley. This may be her only effective performance. One may still think “Liz Hurley: someone has been careless,” but she acquits herself well with the very unnatural dialogue and looks even better naked than usual.
  3. The script, which cracks the problem of all Deodati-weekend movies — nothing actually happens — by having the monster come to flesh-and-blood life and bump off the participants, one by one, enacting a kind of curse of Frankenstein. This of course requires considerable flying in the face of history (Polidori didn’t die THEN, one thinks), but results in some uncanny and surprising scenes.
  4. The film-making. While Ivan Passer seemed to be on lithium and Ken Russell flipped through his scenario with reckless insouciance, throwing in images he’d worn out on previous ventures, Suarez produces genuinely stunning images on a regular basis ~

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So, the film’s flaws and virtues are largely interchangeable. It has an eerie monster, Jose Carlos Rivas, who speaks like an answering machine, and outstanding design and cinematography (Yvonne Blake, on costume, also did Lester’s MUSKETEERS). The director’s inability to muster tension, and the cast’s variable ability to navigate the more challenging scenes, make it a rocky ride, but it hits the sublime every ten or twenty minutes, and that ain’t nuthin’.

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2 Responses to “Nights at the Villa Deodati #3: Byron and Shelley Go Boating”

  1. As a spaniard, I’m curious to know: how did the English dialogue sound to you? I don’t think Gonzalo Suarez spoke English when he made the film, and I remember reading an interview with Hugh Grant where he talked about the film, saying that “the script was written in spanish, and it was translated by someone who obviously was not a native English speaker”.

    On the other hand, Suarez is known for writing cultured, not-exactly-naturalistic dialogue, so maybe that’s what threw Grant off.

  2. That’s what it is — it’s perfect English, just not remotely conversational. Sometimes this works well, sometimes the actors struggle to make it convincing. Lizzie McInnerny as Mary is particularly variable, excellent in some scenes, a bit wooden in others. Not easy stuff to handle.

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