Cinema extends the exercise ground of the psyche. It allows us to have nightmares in broad daylight. Could there be a worse horror for film critics, contemplating an afternoon press show, than Daniel Radcliffe as the young Allen Ginsberg? Hogwarts meets Howl? Geek meets Beat? …
But cinema has other skills. In an eyeblink it can modulate nightmares into dreams. With a few deft key-changes – New York accents, moody-fluorescent “period” lighting, Ginsberg curly hair – the Harry Potter actor and his new protagonist’s world in Kill Your Darlingsbecome persuasive, even compelling. Writer-director John Krokidas (no previous feature convictions save script-tinkering work on American Beauty and Milk, inter alia) manages to annihilate memories of On the Road, the cinema’s last ra-ra for the Rebel Lit gang of mid-century Manhattan.
Krokidas builds his story around a true manslaughter case, brought against pretty-boy Columbia student Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan, a pouty Adonis with bruised-looking limpid eyes), who befriended Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac – or more than befriended – and shared and co-shaped their vision for art and poetry. In 1944 Carr killed academic mentor David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall on effective furlough from TV’s Dexter), alleged by him and Ginsberg, who helped Carr script his defence, to have stalked the young man and sexually harassed him.
That plot is merely the catalyst or centrifuge. The rest – the active drama – is a sexual, cultural and social-historical whirl so energetic that the few bits of clunky dialogue (William Burroughs of Ginsberg, “He’s going to be an amazing artist”) fly swiftly out of ken, leaving a kaleidoscopic historic present of youthful horseplay, frenzied ambitions for revolutionising the world of art and ideas, and polymorphous teenage desire. Ben Foster skilfully captures Burroughs’s starchy-fastidious speech patterns and dandified-cadaver looks. Radcliffe manages, even better, the visionary avidity with which the young Ginsberg might have seen and confronted a medium-young American century, as his to woo, to caress, to seduce, to conquer.