Lord Byron’s short, scandal-filled life has attracted as much attention as his poetry. Byron, a two-hour BBC dramatization of the poet’s final thirteen years, offers a thoughtful interpretation of the legendary figure, combined with witty language and sharp characterizations.

Nick Dear’s script is one factor separating Byron from the spate of other early-nineteenth-century period pieces that have appeared on the network. Dear fully exploits the comic potential of the poet’s contempt for the morals and tastes of his society. He uses some authentic Byron quotes and the ones that he adds himself are perfect for the character. On hearing that a woman is looking for a husband, Byron replies, “Can she not find one in Jane Austen?” Later, he responds to a question about whether he likes children by saying, “Fervent admirer of King Herod as a matter of fact.”

Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting, Melinda and Melinda)) adds depth to the title character’s wit, depicting his cynicism, melancholy, and self-centeredness. Miller’s skill and his uncanny resemblance to Byron make him a perfect fit for the role. Some of the best scenes involve Byron’s servant William Fletcher (Philip Glenister), during which the lord’s callousness toward his longsuffering retainer makes an interesting contrast to his professions of contempt for Britain’s ruling elite. Byron’s relationships with the many women who try to bed him or save him are more straightforward, except (of course) in the case of the woman he can’t have. His incestuous liaison with his half-sister Augusta Leigh (Natasha Little) and his doomed marriage to drab moralist Annabella Milbanke (Julie Cox) form the core of the story. Miller and Little (Vanity Fair) offer a plausible interpretation of the strange attraction that, aside from Byron’s persistent thirst for self-destruction, formed the motivation for the pair’s dangerous affair.

Vanessa Redgrave (The Gathering Storm, The Pledge)has some nice scenes as Lady Melbourne, a socially prominent older woman who serves as the poet’s flirtatious confidante. However, the interaction between Byron and his friend John Cam Hobhouse (Stephen Campbell Moore) is an even stronger aspect of the show. Moore (Bright Young Things) captures Hobhouse’s exasperation at his friend’s capacity for hurting himself, and his facial expressions while watching Byron’s often-comic romantic disasters are flawless.

The use of Byron’s poetry is sparing but well chosen, particularly during the character’s long exile in Italy. It would have been easy for Dear to try to make the story a vehicle for explicating the thinking behind Byron’s most famous verses, but he never falls into such a reductionist approach.

The film refuses to romanticize its subject and leaves no doubt about Byron’s military ineptitude after he joins the fight for Greek independence. The pacing slows at the end, partly in an effort to show the uncertainty and drifting of the lord’s final days, which continued even during the crusade in which he sought his missing sense of purpose. But the slowdown is too severe and the ending drags as a result. Even so, Byron is a compelling portrait that captures the man’s endearing qualities without flinching from the more sordid aspects of his life.

Chris Pepus

byron.jpg (86167 bytes)Lord Byron