This is a biopic of F. R. Leavis, the Cambridge academic who dominated the English literary scene in the mid-20th century. In books like "The Great Tradition" and "The Common Pursuit", and his magazine "Scrutiny", he championed Eliot, Pound and the Metaphysical poets, and breathed fire on Milton and Shelley. He also waged a campaign for D. H. Lawrence, almost single-handedly getting him taken seriously as a novelist (rather than a pornographer). Not that you really need to know any of this: taken as drama, "The Last Romantics" plays like an English version of "The Paper Chase", or maybe a higher-education "Goodbye Mr. Chips".
Most of the action takes place in the early '70s, with Holm as the elderly, embittered Leavis; an increasingly marginalised figure, his theories discredited, denied a professorship by the university. He's still teaching, though, and his pupils include Cumming, a shy, earnest, working-class Scot, and Sewell, a shaggy-maned radical who's more interested in demos and sit-ins than getting an education. Leavis is also haunted by memories of the First World War and his relationship, as a junior academic, with his mentor Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (John Lloyd Fillingham is Leavis in these flashbacks). He invites Cumming to his house for tea and to meet his wife and fellow author Queenie (Kestelman); the younger man drags his pal Sewell along. Holm likes Cumming, but he and the abrasive Sewell lock horns instantly. But Kestelman takes another view: it's Cumming, she says, he ought to beware of...
Holm was Lewis Carroll in "Dreamchild" (1985), and here he convinces again as a repressed, socially awkward academic (the difference is that Carroll was a cripplingly shy maths don, and Leavis had intellectual arrogance and a fearsome temper). Kestelman also scores as Queenie, the great man's intellectual equal and with perhaps an even shorter fuse. The late Leo McKern only has a cough and a spit as Quiller-Couch ("Q"), but he makes his mark.
However, maybe the best reasons to see this are Cumming and Sewell, making very early screen appearances. Cumming is fine as the naive, saucer-eyed Glaswegian (Holm finds him in a patch of daffodils one morning, watching to see if they really do flutter and dance in the breeze), but it's Sewell ("Dark City, A Knight's Tale") who shows the real star quality: his scenes with Holm fairly crackle.
The movie captures better than any film since "Accident" the rhythms of academic life and the dynamics of a tutor-student relationship (Fillingham's relationship with McKern, and Cumming's with Holm, are pretty Oedipal: both younger men need to step out of their mentor's shadow, leading to an inevitable showdown). Perhaps this is all a long-winded way of saying it's esoteric, static and talky - which it is, up until the quite tense climax. "The Last Romantics" was screened on BBC2 in 1991, around the same time as "Truly Madly Deeply" (also made for the BBC, on a similar budget). "Truly Madly Deeply" got released in the States, helped make a star of Alan Rickman and gave Anthony Minghella the clout he needed to make "The English Patient". "The Last Romantics" was only repeated once on terrestrial TV and is not, as far as I know, available on video, although all concerned are at the top of their game.
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