NEW YORK — WALT WHITMAN'S poetry captures the spirit of not only the author himself - as vivid and vigorous as that is - but also the complex and often turbulent 19th century in which he lived. "Beautiful Dreamers," a new Canadian film by John Kent Harrison, paints a distinctive portrait of Whitman by moving him outside his usual haunts in the United States, and examining an incident that seems unconventional even in the context of his extraordinary life.
"Beautiful Dreamers" begins by introducing a Canadian who appears to have little in common with the famous poet, although he's based on an actual person who eventually became Whitman's biographer. His name is Maurice Bucke, and he lives in London, Ontario, where he runs a hospital for the insane - quite a job during the Victorian era, when the treatment and study of mental illness was even more tentative and debated than it is today.
He wants passionately to help his patients live as productively and contentedly as possible. His intentions are continually thwarted, however, not only by illnesses he imperfectly understands, but also by the rigid and frequently destructive methods of his colleagues in the medical profession.
Bucke has a crisis of conscience during a lecture trip to the US, and despairs of doing any real good in his career. But then he meets a man whose enthusiasm for life, love, and the richness of human experience goes beyond anything he's encountered before. The new friend is Whitman, still earthy and plain-spoken despite his renown as a poet. Before long, he and Bucke travel to the Ontario asylum to see if Whitman's boundless affection - and unfailing interest in fresh, unorthodox ideas - can bring solace
and healing to those in such desperate need.
The main subject of "Beautiful Dreamers" is the challenge faced by Bucke in his effort to humanize the treatment of those designated by his society as sick and abnormal. If the main character of the movie turns out to be Whitman rather than his doctor friend, this is largely because of Rip Torn's lusty portrayal of the poet.
Never a particularly subtle actor, Mr. Torn hams it up marvelously, filling the screen with energy and emotion whether he's reciting a snippet from "Leaves of Grass" or trying to argue some sense into the conservative Ontario townsfolk, who can't stifle their suspicion of this bullheaded intruder.
Other performances also make strong impressions, especially those of Colm Feore as Buck and Wendel Meldrum as his wife, whose own misgivings about Whitman unexpectedly give way to acceptance of his most radical ideas and positions.
As a cinematic work, "Beautiful Dreamers" is not very well crafted. It emphasizes its key points too heavily, and the climax of the story - an attempt to involve the patients in "normal" activity by holding a cricket match at the asylum - is swamped by overstatement and sentimentality. Such failings are balanced by the movie's better attributes, however, including the performances by Torn and others. Also praiseworthy is the canny screenplay.
"Beautiful Dreamers" entertainingly depicts Whitman's ongoing battle with his natural enemies: social and cultural arbiters like the local doctors, the minister, and the newspaper editor. And, while the film isn't a major film, its good heart and intelligent spirit ultimately carry the day.
Mr. Harrison, a newcomer to feature filmmaking, directed "Beautiful Dreamers" from his own screenplay, inspired by the Whitman biography that Bucke wrote later in his life, and by stories about Whitman that Harrison heard while growing up in the Ontario town where many of the film's events actually occurred. The movie was coproduced by the National Film Board of Canada.