Based on the life and works of the New Zealand poet Iris Wilkinson, who pen-named under Robin Hyde, this New Zealand TVM is a tale of yet another doomed artist, and a demonstration that poetry reading is undramatic.
The teleplay by Keith Aberdein may be based on a true story, but it incorporates all the cliches - the gifted child amongst miserable parents, few career possibilities for a women in the 1920's, a woman scorned for unmarried pregnancy, the child born dead, physical deformity, drug abuse, withdrawal into madness, and the inevitable suicide. Aberdein pours on the poetry, even having Iris project her poetry onto other characters speech, but we never see how she is able to be published, though presumably her success is what allows her to travel so easily. He also makes so many references to Iris' association with water and the sea that is is a relief when her suicide does not utilise either.
Apart from her stint in Japanese-invaded China, where naturally she is raped, the one interesting aspect is something presumably inspired by what Harold Pinter did with the screenplay for the 1981 feature The French Lieutenant's Woman. Aberdein has the re-enactments of Iris' life framed as a film-within-a-film, where we see the writer, director and actress for a TVM. The initial antipathy between the actress Samantha Beck (played by Helen Morse, who also plays Iris), and the writer Kelly (Philip Holder) provides some amusing tension, and also allows Morse to play funny anger.
Aberdein describes Samantha as a "feminist" for us to interpret as "trouble", and in the middle of her audition she rebukes the writer who walks out, describing his script as a "tendentious, dishonest, totally gratuitous load of sh*t" (which is actually a reasonable assessment). Samantha gets another go at Kelly when he waits in her dressing room after her (unseen) appearance on stage in Macbeth. Kelly excuses his behavior as that of someone grappling to present the real Iris, failing to see that Samantha's pose is a passive-aggressive actor's trick, but once she is cast, his objection to her gives way to benign admiration and mushy romance.
Morse's Samantha has a blonde straggly shag hair-style that is far more effective than Iris' brunette, and her hushed recital of Iris' words cannot redeem them from reading as blather. A scene where she picks up a cat has all the sensitivity Iris' poetry cannot convey, and a flash of Iris' face turned away from the camera, her hair messy and wild, suggests more madness than Morse writhing in a strait-jacket or running in slow motion.
Aberdein has Iris say that "the world" is her enemy - "If the world is sane, I am most certainly not", and uses the old chestnut that all Iris needs to be happy is to be loved. (You can guess that her sex life is pretty bleak). However he also has her tell the psychiatrist in an asylum who wants her to stay, that as a writer, she "needs life", which would seem to be a contradiction. Her leaving the asylum is actually a nice touch of irony, and as asylum's go, hers looks rather cosy. We know however that Iris is losing it when she has visions of herself, where the other talks back and she answers, but we also get the odd idea that Iris' poetry recital can frighten her sister as a child.
Director Tony Isaac uses newsreel footage for China under the pretext of Iris at the cinema in England, zooms in on the film's director Mike (John Bach) when he watches Morse so we see what he invisages, uses an obvious body double for Morse's extreme long shot nude scene, stages a bathtub scene with two adult women which is totally un-erotic, and cuts from a police peak-hole view of Iris in a cell to Mike's eye-piece view of Samantha as Iris.
There is enough drama in the life of Iris Wilkinson's life to make an interesting dramatisation, and this is certainly not the definitive version. Of course, one has to overcome the problem of those darn poems, which aren't memorable enough here to inspire great visual treatment. Poetry is perhaps the hardest literary form to present on film, since one's appreciation of it is so private and delicate, and even here, Iris' poetry wasn't enough to curb her self-destructive urges. And the issue of why she published under a pen-name, at all, is never explained.
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