Howl (M)

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Review byMatthew Turner28/10/2010

Three out of Five stars
Running time: 90 mins

Part interview, part poetry reading and part court transcript, Howl is an intriguingly multi-layered drama that doesn't quite marry its three strands together, but is still worth watching thanks to strong performances from James Franco and Jon Hamm.

What's it all about?
Directed by documentary film-makers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Howl is a multifaceted drama that takes an intriguing approach to the story of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and his epic 1955 poem, Howl. The film is split into three clearly separate sections that unfold concurrently: in the first, James Franco plays Ginsberg as he gives a lengthy post-trial interview (in black and white) to an unseen journalist, with the dialogue entirely lifted from a real-life interview; the second is a dramatic reading of the poem (by Franco), illustrated with animated sequences and the occasional shot of Franco reading it aloud in a smoke filled room; and the third is the 1957 obscenity trial (although Ginsberg himself never appears), in which Jon Hamm and David Strathairn clash as the opposing defence and prosecution lawyers, with the dialogue once taken entirely from the court transcripts.

The Good
Franco is terrific as Ginsberg, nailing his distinctive speech patterns and mannerisms, and delivering a revealing interview that is often moving, particularly as he talks about his early gay experiences and his relationship with fellow Beat icon Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott). Similarly, Hamm is fantastic as defence lawyer Jake Ehrlich (the rousing summing up speech at the end would net him an Oscar nomination if this was that sort of movie) and there's strong support from the always-excellent Strathairn as well as the likes of Jeff Daniels, Alessandro Nivola and Mary-Louise Parker as the various witnesses.

The poetry section is equally good – the poem itself still stands up today and Franco delivers a splendid reading of it. Similarly, the trial seems just as relevant as it was then.

The Bad
The fact that the dialogue is entirely drawn from real-life sources is a bold and interesting decision on the part of the film-makers, making this as much a documentary as it is a drama. That said, it's fair to say that the animated sequences don't entirely work and that the three sections don't quite fit together quite as well as they should; Ginsberg's absence in the trial segment is regrettable, if true to life.

Worth seeing?
This is an intriguingly structured, well acted drama that should be a staple on American Literature courses everywhere. Not entirely successful but worth seeing nonetheless.

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Content updated: 16/12/2019 01:21

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