Mannerisms Maketh Man

Casting choices can define the outcome of historical adaptations. When it comes to issues of appearance and performance, there’s a fine balance in achieving a convincing performance – which factors should be prioritized for authenticity?

By Daniel Rose & Serena Ypelaar

The Mindful Rambler was always going to feature dialogue posts – it was just a matter of time. And now here we are! This article was born halfway into a deep discussion the two of us were having about historical casting choices. Do actors need to look like their historical counterparts to convince an audience, or is it the performance that matters most? We each had some interesting – and mostly opposing – views, and you can read our discussion below. 

SVY: To get straight into our standpoints on this issue, I’ll come right out and say that while performance obviously matters to me, appearance matters just as much, if not more. I’m a very visual learner and I like to be fully absorbed into an adaptation – if an actor doesn’t really look like the person they’re meant to be portraying, I have trouble buying in. It places a bit of a barrier between myself and the film/show. But I know you have a fascinating and absolutely valid perspective on this topic too. 

DR: For the longest time, I shared the belief that actors should physically resemble the historic figures they have been cast to play. This changed with Frank Langella’s fantastic performance as former President Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon (2008). Even though Langella did not particularly look like Nixon, his uncanny portrayal of Nixon’s mannerisms and way of speaking was astonishingly accurate. As a viewer, I felt transported to 1977, with Langella’s performance pulling back the curtain on a person and period that I did not live through. To me, an actor’s ability to convey the intricacies of a figure’s mindset and historical context is just as important as “looking” the part when it comes to selling the viewer on an historic piece.  

Frank Langella (left) as Richard Nixon (right) in Frost/Nixon. Photo: Pinterest

SVY: For sure, I agree that without mannerisms and attention to detail, so much of the person’s essence is lost. I think it’s a fine balance – if an actor doesn’t already look like their subject, makeup is now so sophisticated that a lack of resemblance can be easily remedied. For instance, Christian Bale was transformed completely into Dick Cheney in VICE (2018). Some say heavy prosthetics hamper performance, and the same can be said for screenwriting: if a screenplay does a feeble job of interpreting a real-life person’s temperament, it might not always translate on-screen depending on what the actor has to work with. For instance, I previously wrote about Zac Efron’s uncanny casting as serial killer Ted Bundy; Efron’s performance was excellent but the script was weak. With many variables in historical adaptation and the complexity of human personalities, it’s challenging to get right. But viewing is a passive activity, so it can help when much of the interpretive work is done for me. How do you look past outward appearances when you’re watching things? 

Amy Adams and Christian Bale as Lynne and Dick Cheney in VICE. Photo: Through the Silver Screen

DR: I think you raise some good points – Bale’s transformation in VICE was astonishing, I’ll admit. That said, when I watch a movie about a real-life figure, or even any old period piece, I consider more than just how one character looks. Ideally, the setting and costumes paint a picture (pun intended) of the aesthetic of a time period. By including tiny details such as fashion choices and products that have since been discontinued, films draw on memories and shared experiences on a subconscious level. By creating an environment that “feels” familiar, the viewer is transported into a world that does not reflect the current era. A great example is the film First Man (2018), starring Ryan Gosling. The camera spends a great deal of time showcasing “space age” technology, including analog dials on flat steel machines, alongside more mainstream 1960’s design choices, such as wood panelling and garish wallpaper. I could almost feel some of the costumes through the screen, as actors eschewed polyester blend for scratchy wool and one-hundred percent cotton. I honestly could not tell you if any of the actors resembled the real-life Apollo 11 crew – but I was utterly convinced by how the film framed them. 

Colin Firth (left) and Jared Harris (right) respectively, both as King George VI. Photo: Slate

SVY: That’s worth noting too. Our familiarity with the figure being portrayed will influence our convictions in terms of whether the likeness and portrayal seems authentic. I’ll now bring in an example of a key struggle I face when I’ve seen a lot of pictures and/or constructed an aura of a historical figure in my mind. There have been a couple of portrayals of King George VI lately, in The King’s Speech (2010) and television series The Crown (2016-). Both actors, Colin Firth and Jared Harris respectively, look nothing like the late British monarch. Both conveyed aspects of his character through their performance, but to me their visual appearance separates me from complete absorption in the portrayal because I know irrevocably how Bertie actually looked. Similarly, I’ve delved so far into Jane Austen’s biography and world that seeing Anne Hathaway play her in Becoming Jane (2007) seemed a bit beyond belief. I can definitely still enjoy a production on these occasions, but I just can’t fully embrace the actor as a true embodiment of the figure. Perhaps it’s because I’m a highly visual learner, but something holds me back!

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane. Photo: Film Affinity

DR: I think we’ve identified some ways in which an actor looking or not looking like an historic figure can either help or hinder an audience member’s engagement with the subject matter. Regarding my stance, I want to echo the sentiments of Chernobyl (2019) stars Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård. Flummoxed that they were cast to play figures they bore no resemblance to, both actors concluded that stripping the focus away from physical similarities allowed director Johan Renck to hire performers whose talents could help construct a portrait of life as it was in the Soviet Union. The success of the series changed my entire perspective, and allowed me to re-evaluate how other historic films draw the viewer into the paradigm on display. All that said, as someone who agreed with you until recently, Serena, I respect your position!

SVY: Same to you, Dan! It’s been fun bandying about, and I can definitely say that while I’m attached to the idea of resemblance, I do agree that poor acting is by no means a satisfactory trade-off for the elusive goal of physical likeness. In terms of historical interpretation, I’m looking forward to seeing what Hollywood does next so we can keep discussing these principles.

“Material Without Being Real”: How IMAX Immerses

Watching film favourites in IMAX offers viewers the chance to feel as close to a story as possible, going one step further with visual immersion to transport the viewer.

By Serena Ypelaar

“Life is much more successfully looked at through a single window,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald in his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby – and when it comes to film, I couldn’t agree more, the “single window” being the big screen. Despite the rise of home streaming services, the cinema still thrives as a public space for one reason: its ability to immerse. IMAX is an exceptional example, as I was reminded last night at the Cinesphere in Toronto.

I’ve seen two films at the Cinesphere in the last year, and both experiences were cinematic treats. I should also note that both are among my all-time favourite movies: The Sound of Music (1965) and The Great Gatsby (2013). Rewatching these films on the big(ger) screen was a phenomenal exercise in 1) spectacle and 2) film criticism.

In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music (1965), IMAX drops us right amidst the Alps as we follow Maria’s adventures up close and personal. Photo: The Sound of Music

My family loves films. Throughout my life my parents have introduced me to a multitude of classic films, and we always revered IMAX as a special chance to see those classics larger than life. When my mother was in university, she got to meet with one of the creators of IMAX to learn about its inception. IMAX is actually a Canadian creation, distributed worldwide since the 1960s – and it has the power to transport viewers using large-scale visuals.

Take The Great Gatsby, for example. I saw it a couple of times (ahem, a few) in theatres, but that was six years ago now – and ever since then, I’ve only watched on television screens at home. Returning to the cinema to watch Gatsby last night was even more invigorating than I expected. Baz Luhrmann’s film is a highly visual, often dizzying romp through the 1920s and it takes some time to get into, but after the first half hour or so I was so absorbed that I didn’t even notice where I was or that I was actually watching a story from outside it. My friend and I delved so deep into discussion about the film and its execution of the titular 20th century literary novel that I’m still now recovering from the magnitude of such an intense viewing experience.

Being tossed headfirst into Jay Gatsby’s parties is one of the joys of watching films in an even larger, more immersive cinema. Photo: Collider

IMAX has the power to take you into the world it presents, through the mere sights and sounds of the experience but also in its creation itself. The IMAX projector allows films to be ten times larger than 35mm, with outstanding quality picture. Combine the sheer size of the screen with the sheer size of the Gatsby universe, and you’ve got yourself a winner. As viewers, we’re drawn deeply into the narrative through immersion, picking up details like never before: the nuances of each character’s expression, the ornate features of the sets, and cinematography as it pulls us further in.

Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) in The Great Gatsby (2013). The film in IMAX faithfully recreated the white curtain scene from Fitzgerald’s novel. Photo: IMDb

As the film drew to a close last night, the audience was mesmerized – it’s been ages since I could hear a pin drop in a theatre like that. The weightiest scenes were magnetic in the sense that I felt like I was there; I got absorbed in Jay Gatsby’s parties, his gardens, or roaring along in his large yellow car. Watching The Sound of Music in IMAX was just as enticing, with the rolling hills and mountains of the Austrian landscape spilling before the audience. In IMAX, we’re immune to commonplace distractions that might interrupt at home; we’re fully surrounded by the action.

The reality of the Valley of Ashes is jarringly brought to life in IMAX, where there is no hiding from the dirt and grime of industrial New York in the 1920s. Photo: Popsugar

Essentially, IMAX can elevate an average movie night to a sublime experience, one that shows cinema at its best: taking us out of ourselves and into another universe. These innovations in media offer top notch escapism without even leaving our seats, and personally, I’m more than grateful for the chance to get swallowed up into a good story.

Quotes used in this article are taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925).

Reflections and Realizations on a Wizard’s Birthday

Like a fine wine, a book, too, can get better with age. With age comes maturity; with maturity comes appreciation. This is all to say that a reread of a prolific childhood novel can leave one with a much greater understanding and respect in adulthood.

By Bretton Weir

July 31st comes but once a year. To most, this seems like it could be nothing more than an arbitrary date; to others, this day celebrates the birth of one of literature’s most prolific heroes: Harry Potter turns 39. To commemorate this day, a Harry Potter-inspired post is a (room of) requirement.

If I baked, I’d make this cake in celebration.
Source: Giphy

I am a fan of Harry Potter. I grew up with the book series and enjoyed the films; however, I recognize that my passive appreciation doesn’t hold a match to the fanaticism of many, including a few of the contributing writers of The Mindful Rambler.

I wanted to write this post, however, because I have come to this realization as an adult: The Chamber of Secrets is the book I underrated most growing up BUT I have come to realize it is a lynch pin to the plot of the entire series. 

Building on Perfection

The first novel in the series, The Philosopher’s Stone, is bliss. It gives us all the tools to understand the Wizarding World — the grandeur, the allure, the sense of place Harry finds so comforting, and it sets up the conflict of good versus evil. However, it can stand alone as a novel. Independent. A one-off.

The Chamber of Secrets takes what the first book establishes, uses it as its foundation, and further builds up and solidifies the future of the entire series. 

Expanding the Wizarding World

In this second installment, we get to see more of what makes the Wizarding World so magnificent. For instance, we are introduced to the Weasleys’ homestead, The Burrow. This is a location that will continue to represent a place of belonging for Harry throughout the series. Or take the Floo network, a magical highway of sorts, connecting all the fireplaces of the Wizarding World together.

Accio: Floo Powder
Source: Giphy

While all very intriguing, what The Chamber of Secrets does so well is in its setup of the extent of Voldemort’s evil and how Harry will eventually meet and defeat his foe. 

Horcruxes FTW

Yes, Voldemort is the big bad. And yes, we know that from the start. What The Chamber of Secrets does is covertly introduce us to the concept of Horcruxes — the physical objects in which Voldemort has split his soul. As any reader knows, the Horcruxes are what drive the plot and action of the last third of the series. For J.K. Rowling to plant this seed so early in the series, however, speaks to her ingenuity and thoughtful long-term planning. The fact Harry is able to face and defeat one of these manifestations of evil (Tom Riddle’s diary) so early gives us some comforting foresight. As well, the continued use of the basilisk as a further symbol of Voldemort’s terror is very affecting. Furthermore, this symbolism contrasts the fact that the fangs of this creature are a powerful tool in destroying the evil they seem to represent. Two words I use to describe this: bloody brilliant.

Wise words, Ronald Weasley. Wise words.
Source: Giphy

With all this being said, I would suggest we all give The Chamber of Secrets a reread. Heck, why not a reread of the entire series? I reckon you’ll be amazed at what you’ll pick up on another pass through the books.

What are you thoughts on The Chamber of Secrets, and Harry Potter, at large? Drop us a comment below!

A Tale of Two Biopics

Elton John’s biopic Rocketman is out (pun intended) and as expected, people are comparing it with Bohemian Rhapsody. But the difference in vantage points precludes direct comparison, instead highlighting the nuances of how the biographer affects the biography. 

By Serena Ypelaar 

Let’s get one thing straight before we dive back into biopics: I don’t want to compare Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocketman (2019) as overall films. To do so would be to confine each by relating them too much to one another, when in fact I find they’re pretty different in tone. But that leads me to this article, in which I’ll analyze just one aspect of the films: voice. (Surprisingly not in the context of singing.) How does authorship of a biography, specifically in the biopic film genre, affect how a story is told? 

Take Bohemian Rhapsody, for starters. It was produced and released long after Freddie Mercury’s death but chronicles his rise to fame and his artistic legacy in what I feel is a tasteful tribute. It’s been criticized by fans for simplifying the LGBTQ2+ narrative and Freddie’s diagnosis with AIDS, as well as for some sequential inaccuracies – but as a casual Queen listener myself, I do favour a cohesive story flow over pinpoint accuracy. Some other stories always make me foam at the mouth in the name of authenticity (*ahemPrideandPrejudice*), but I can appreciate a solid, tightened-up story especially where distilling someone’s life into a consumable, 2-hour flick is concerned. BoRhap delivers on that front. 

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury of Queen, in Bohemian Rhapsody. Photo: NME / Alamy

But it’s fascinating, with the recent release of Elton John biopic Rocketman, to behold the variance in tone thanks to its vantage point. This biopic doesn’t tell the story about Sir Elton John. Elton John tells you his story himself (also condensed but mostly accurate), since he’s still living and was personally involved in the project as an executive producer alongside his husband David Furnish. Knowing this, I felt while watching the movie that I could pick up the difference between the two films in terms of voice. Rocketman is bolder when it comes to the personal trials of its subject, tackling issues such as substance abuse, LGBTQ2+ experiences and homophobia, mental health, and the burdens of fame. 

Taron Egerton as Elton John and Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin in Rocketman (2019). Photo: IMDb

Bohemian Rhapsody definitely touched on a number of these topics too, but seemed to handle them much more cautiously in terms of Mercury’s experiences within them. I felt that there was a more reverent tone toward Mercury and a distance from the grittier parts of his story – understandably. Producing a legacy biopic means celebrating an artist’s achievements – and as Mercury is no longer present to have agency over his story, writers and producers took the utmost care, perhaps scaling down difficult topics a bit to avoid making any controversial statements. Getting inside Mercury’s head and obtaining an insider perspective of his emotions in each scene is no longer possible, so his life had to be interpreted more from the outside. It makes perfect sense, especially when loved ones and former Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor, who were film consultants, are watching the film – their approval matters, as does the feeling that the film does justice to Mercury’s life and experiences. 

On the other hand, Rocketman pulled out all the stops, no holds barred. John and Furnish didn’t quail when it came to plunging into the darker underbelly of John’s lowest moments – the result was an intensely honest human experience, as John and his deepest insecurities and struggles are laid bare for viewers. Again, it’s not surprising that Rocketman‘s perspective is more internally oriented – it’s John’s story to tell. He has direct ownership over his life and how he presents it to others, and he’s fearlessly made use of it. 

The real Freddie Mercury and Elton John hanging out. Photo: Pinterest

You could say, then, that Bohemian Rhapsody is more of a biography while Rocketman is an autobiography. The two modes of storytelling vary from one another, and the products of each come through in their respective films. BoRhap is a glossy, uplifting vignette of Freddie Mercury’s genius from the perspective of those who remember him fondly, and Rocketman is an extremely self-aware, moodier take on fame and collaboration, Elton John’s way of thanking (and alternately, condemning) those who were a part of his journey, depending on their roles in his life. 

Both films are intriguing, with common themes of artistic talent, loneliness, and love. Yet each has its own priorities for preserving the story of its subject. Although I said I resent too much direct comparison of these two films (they both offer their own merits), the inevitability of it within the genre has enabled me to really ponder creatorship and how it shapes narrative. Next time you’re watching a biopic, ask yourself who’s telling the story and how that affects its portrayal. I’d bet it’ll help you appreciate the subject’s life even more.

Operation Neptune: Remembering D-Day

75 years after the Normandy landings in 1944, this D-Day commemoration may be the final milestone at which World War II veterans are alive to tell the tale. How does remembrance change when we no longer have firsthand witnesses to uphold our historic memory?

By Serena Ypelaar

Historians, especially those working in public history, know that we have a responsibility to remember and learn from the past, lest past mistakes be repeated. This responsibility will loom larger in the forefront of our duties when the original veterans of World War II, the firsthand memory-keepers, are no longer with us.

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy. On the 6th of June, 1944, British, French, Canadian, and American troops carried out an amphibious assault on the coast of German-occupied France. Codenamed “Operation Neptune”, the Normandy landings constituted the largest seaborne invasion in history. D-Day therefore laid the foundations for Europe’s liberation and the end of the Second World War. Though there are veterans still living to recount their memories, soon that will no longer be the case.

The 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade disembarking onto Juno Beach at Normandy. Photo: Wikimedia

At the commemoration ceremonies at Normandy this past Thursday, Prince Charles referenced this sobering reality in his speech. It left me to ponder how quickly time is receding (as always) from our grasp – these changes will transform the historical memory of the Second World War. After all, we no longer have veterans of World War I (or earlier conflicts) to consult about their experiences. Historical interpretation of WWII will likewise rely on physically preserved records, which is going to change how we remember and reinterpret the conflict.

Remembrance in itself is an act – or series of acts – of interpretation. And those interpretations may change depending on contemporary international contexts. For instance, national leaders including outgoing British prime minister Theresa May, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, and French president Emmanuel Macron, came together at the D-Day ceremonies in France yesterday to memorialize those who fought the Nazis at Normandy. Notably absent was German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It’s unclear whether she was not invited or simply didn’t attend; she was present at the British ceremony in Portsmouth the day before. Of course, Germany’s role in World War II is the obvious point of contention in this kind of commemoration, and how the country engages with commemorations today sets the tone for reconciliation and reparation.

Britain was prominent among the Allied forces during World War II, and they likewise had a robust presence in the D-Day commemorations. With the mess that is Brexit, Britain’s current political situation places them at an interesting perspective. D-Day was a mobilization of Allied forces which relied upon the unity of major European nations like Britain and France. Now, however, Britain is stepping back from their long-term trade ties with France (as well as Germany) to leave the European Union. In a similar way, the United States was heavily involved in D-Day, yet diplomacy between the U.S. and European countries is particularly strained thanks to President Donald Trump. Having seen tension between certain political leaders, such as between Trump and Merkel, these commemoration events are like a strange family reunion: they reveal how relationships have changed over time.

“Into the Jaws of Death” by Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard.
Photo: Wikimedia

The main priority of preserving history is remembering and honouring the past. To this end, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, read out the exact words of his great grandfather George VI, from his D-Day Broadcast:

“At this historic moment, surely not one of us is too busy, too young, or too old to play a part in a nationwide, worldwide vigil …”

King George VI, in a D-Day Broadcast aired 6 June 1944
King George VI of England’s D-Day Broadcast,
originally aired on the morning of 6 June 1944.

This touch was particularly notable because it acknowledges the importance of taking the past into account (something the British notoriously excel at!). One day, not only will the veterans be gone, but so will their children, grandchildren, and everyone who knew them. So what does this tell us about commemoration? We need to preserve the stories of those who lived through the experience, and we need to uphold their legacies as if they were our own while paying our respects to the great sacrifices they made for freedom.

“Only those who threw themselves against the walls of the fortress of Europe in Normandy know the full extent of what unfolded here 75 years ago. But it is the responsibility of all Canadians to ensure that their story and their sacrifice will never be forgotten.”

Justin Trudeau, in a speech at Juno Beach on 6 June 2019
Juno Beach is the site where Canadian forces landed during the D-Day invasion. Photo: Joe de Sousa

Nationalism of course comes into play at these commemorations, as it always does. But if we think of commemoration on a purely human level – irrespective of politics – we can preserve history with greater integrity. Sure, we can argue about international relations and the current state of affairs worldwide, but that’s not what commemoration is about. When loss of life is concerned, politicizing memorials trivializes and distracts from the sacrifices of human beings. As shown by the world’s diplomatic leaders, public memory is a collaborative form of historical interpretation. There are many things we may differ on as people and as countries, but the human cost of war is universally significant to us.

D-Day teaches us the importance of balancing past interpretations with present-day ones in order to remember responsibly. In the end, preserving historical memory isn’t the sole responsibility of those who lived through an event in history – it’s our responsibility, as the ones who will carry their stories forward in years to come.

To learn more about the 75th anniversary D-Day commemorations, click here.

So, Tell Me Something About Yourself

To celebrate The Mindful Rambler‘s 1st birthday, we examine storytelling as a way to get to know people.

By Serena Ypelaar

Think of the last funny story you told. 

How did you make it compelling? Which parts did you include, and which parts did you omit? And what about timing? (It’s supposed to be everything, isn’t it?) I’m guessing you were definitely hoping for the best punchline and the best response to your story.

Storytelling is an inherently creative process. And I think that the reception of a story depends heavily on the storyteller. What perspective are they coming from? Who are they trying to reach? Audience – and knowing your audience – is just as integral to the success of a story. 

Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Personal storytelling is something of a curatorial process, trying to synthesize one’s own experience and present it coherently to others so they can share in it.

For instance, I just got back from a month in Scotland, and I have a plethora of stories to tell my family and friends. Since there are so many, they’ll likely unravel slowly over time as I’m reminded of things I did or saw (or, let’s be honest, ate). Naturally I’ll be looking to impart the essence of my experience – how enlightening it was, how beautiful the landscapes were, how friendly people are … the list of stories it’s possible to share goes on.

Yours truly on a ramble through the woods. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about personal storytelling and what it means for us as humans. We’ve mostly been discussing public storytelling here on The Mindful Rambler, on a large scale; but as we’re today celebrating the blog’s 1st birthday, I want to reframe things a bit so we also consider storytelling on a more personal level. 

What is the significance of our own stories? And how do literary masters, artists, and creators pour themselves into their own storytelling to share a piece of their lives – their struggles, their triumphs, their losses, their love? The art reflects the artist; not only can we learn something about the world when we consume and interpret stories, we also get to know another person, sometimes without ever having met them. Humanity needs stories.

We’ll be rambling more on these themes soon. Thank you all for reading The Mindful Rambler in its first year – I hope you’ve enjoyed it! My fellow ramblers and I – Adriana, Sadie, Lilia, Jenny, and Bretton – look forward to telling even more stories over the next year.

A Life and Death Matter

Historically, death masks were used to remember those who had passed away, or to create likenesses in portraits. Life masks are their slightly less macabre twin, and they both close an interpretive gap in physical memory.

By Serena Ypelaar

When I first set foot in Keats House in Hampstead, London almost exactly a year ago, I had long been fascinated by death masks – but life masks would prove to bring a whole other thrill.

Posthumous portrait of the poet John Keats by William Hilton. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

You might wonder why the distinction between the two holds any significance whatsoever. One type of mask is taken from a deceased subject’s face, while the other involves the living individual. What’s the big difference?

From an interpretive standpoint, the fact that historical figures posed for life masks while living and breathing – that they perhaps might have made a remark just before the cast was taken – is staggering. The result, while it may seem trifling at the time, becomes an unrivaled connection to the subject after they have died. A life mask of a historical figure preserves their face in its tangible and living form beyond a photograph or painting, allowing us to interact with it.

Let’s give these abstract notions some context. I first came across the poet John Keats (1795-1821) and his work while studying British literature in undergrad. I quickly came to love Romantic poetry, in which nature, emotion, and the metaphysical take centre stage, and Keats’ 1820 Ode on a Grecian Urn (in which the speaker marvels at the beauty of an artifact in the British Museum) captures everything I love about museums and literature.

Keats House in Hampstead Heath, London, where the poet lived from 1818-1820. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

So there I stood in Keats House, ready to connect with my favourite poet in a long awaited moment of fulfillment. I couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome. For one thing, the house’s interpretation was excellent – I had expected a rather dated presentation of the Romantic poet’s life, but the displays are new, appealing, and most importantly, emotionally evocative. Sensory elements are manifold as we’re given opportunities to visualize Keats’ presence and listen to audio of a first-person interpreter reading his poems and personal writings. And most strikingly, there are masks.

On the ground floor is Keats’ life mask. As a forever fangirl of the poet who lived there from 1818 to 1820, I was instantly drawn to it. (I can’t believe I’m telling you this, because it sounds irredeemably creepy.) My strange urge to interact with the mask was validated (thank God, I’m not crazy after all!) when I read the label next to it: please touch.

John Keats’ life mask on display at Keats House, next to a label encouraging visitors to touch.
Photo: Serena Ypelaar

And that was how I ended up in Keats’ house touching his face. To further justify my museum nerdiness + mild infatuation, I can only describe the experience as unique and surreal.

With a life mask, you can engage with those who’ve predeceased you, whether you feel the contours of their face or just look. It’s so rare to find this kind of connection with individuals who died before photography gathered steam. Maybe Keats House really knew their audience, but it truly surpassed trying to picture someone’s face based on portraits: here was the unembellished truth of what Keats really looked like. Since no photographs of him exist, the mask is an invaluable instrument of truth.

Upstairs was a much more sobering reality, but affecting all the same. The lighthearted yet poignant discovery of the life mask was replaced by a sombre shift: here, behind glass, was Keats’ death mask. Keats died of tuberculosis aged 25. The difference in his face was noticeable. His once robust features were gaunt and thinner, a mark of the illness that claimed his life; and like the life mask, coming face to face with Keats was unparalleled in significance. It’s appropriate that this iteration was inaccessible by touch, for obvious ethical reasons. No one needs to touch a death mask, unless they’re a collections manager! Regardless, I was glad for the rare privilege of seeing both a life and death mask of the same person, however grim the comparison.

Keats’ death mask (behind glass, as seen in my reflection).
Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Life and death masks offer an indisputable connection to the subject of both. The concept is like a goldmine as far as historical and biographical interpretation goes. In front of us is the objective image of a person’s likeness, almost as if they were before our eyes. One thing’s for sure: when looking at Keats’ life mask, I felt as mesmerized as the speaker looking at the Grecian urn in the British Museum. I hope to see more life (and death) masks of public figures in the future, because their immersive value is inimitable.

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

John Keats, from “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820)