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Philip Hoare: 'I was a dark star always'

04 November 2018 - 25 January 2019

A tribute in film to the life of Wilfred Owen with readings by Ben Whishaw.

John Hansard Gallery is pleased to present ‘I was a dark star always’, a new film installation marking the centenary of the death of Wilfred Owen, opening 4 November 2018.

The film, written by Philip Hoare and directed by Adam Low, incorporates readings by Ben Whishaw of both letters and poems by Owen, and is filmed at key locations from his life, including the beach in Torquay where he swam as a child, and the canal in northern France where he died, on 4 November 1918, aged just 25.

Wilfred Owen only happened to be a war poet. A century on, he peers at us, over-shadowed by his death. We see a doomed poet, not an ambitious, sensual young man with a brilliant future. History and tradition has removed him from us. In life, Owen represented not the unnatural struggle of trench life or macabre themes of war, rather a young man seeking his own identity through words, a most natural and admirable pursuit. 'I was a dark star always', Owen told Siegfried Sassoon, a year before he died.

‘I was a dark star always’ lifts Owen out of the pen to which he is frequently confined, and projects him into our time. What would he have made of life after the war, had he survived? Using words from the poet himself, Hoare re-imagines him out of history's sepia and into a bright blue sea.

‘I was a dark star always’ uses water as a motif and theme to explore Owen’s life and represent his fluid sexuality. He swam whenever he could, encouraged by his father, a railway clerk who'd dress up as a sailor and pretend to be a captain in Liverpool docks. Wilfred swam in rivers, pools and the sea; as a teenager in Devon, as an officer in Yorkshire, as a casualty of shellshock in Netley Hospital, near Southampton. Sent to Craiglockhart in Scotland to recuperate, he declared to Sassoon that the water ‘never fails to give me a Greek feeling of energy and elemental life.’

It was the last thing he ever did in England, bathing off Folkestone beach, watching a handsome young fellow officer wade out of the surf. He was killed in action leading his men across the Sambre-Oise canal in Ors, falling backwards into the water in a poetic and fitting final act.

Wilfred Owen was the first poet Philip Hoare loved. Growing up as a teenager in suburban Southampton in the 70s, Hoare saw him as an icon of otherness, alongside Oscar Wilde and David Bowie. 40 years on, ‘I was a dark star always’ is an expression of this affinity and an exploration of what Owen truly represented as a modern artist dealing with themes of the natural world set against human frailty. 

‘I was a dark star always’ is co-produced with the John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, and will be screened at the gallery itself and other sites in Oxford, Edinburgh, Bristol and London.

Credits: Written by Philip Hoare | Directed by Adam Low | Produced and Photographed by Martin Rosenbaum | Edited by Joanna Crickmay | Assistant Producer, James Norton
A Lone Star/John Hansard Gallery Co-Production
Running time: 10 minutes

Philip Hoare’s books include biographies of Stephen Tennant and Noël Coward, the historical studies, Wilde’s Last Stand, Spike Island, and England’s Lost Eden. His book Leviathan or, The Whale won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. The Sea Inside was published in 2013, and his most recent book, RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR, was published in 2017. He is a Professorial Fellow in English at the University of Southampton. 

Adam Low is the BAFTA-and Emmy-award winning director of BBC films on T.S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Luchino Visconti, Noël Coward, Francis Bacon, Dirk Bogarde and Alan Bennett.