It’s official: actor Julian Sands has passed at age 65, after disappearing while hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains. He was a great actor – and also a genuine aficionado of literature. His work offered me an artist’s great gift: a small-town kid’s early intuition that the world can be grand and beautiful beyond its present boundaries. And it still does.
First there was his portrayal of beautiful idealist George Emerson in the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of “A Room with A View,” which opened my undergraduate eyes to an Anglo-Italian literary landscape I never could have dreamed I’d be leading students through someday. Then his turn as Percy Shelley in “Gothic,” the best bad film I know.
Ah, “Gothic.” Watching it in preparation for our study-abroad course, “In Frankenstein‘s Footsteps: The Keats-Shelley Circle in London, Geneva, and Italy,” students and I roll our eyes at director Ken Russell’s general over-the-top atmospherics. “Remember,” I joke, “this is the auteur who gave us ‘The Lair of the White Worm.'” Yet especially in its last 15 minutes, a fever dream of Frankenstein‘s origin, and the late Miranda Richardson’s brilliant portrayal of Mary Shelley, this film gets the Romantics oddly right. (Except for Miriam Cyr as the perennially underestimated Claire Clairmont. And Timothy Spall – thirty years before the magnificence of Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner and Topsy-Turvy – as a creepy dude who must have been tremendous fun to play but is not Dr. Polidori. But then, this IS the auteur who gave us “The Lair of the White Worm.”)
As Percy Shelley, Julian Sands nails the mix of preoccupation and spontaneity you sense in Shelley’s own writing (especially his letters) and what those around him surely must have sensed: this was a man who could and would do and say just about anything, at any time. When writing my own novel about Mary and Percy Shelley, I had to build a plausible answer to a real question: how could an intelligent girl, even a sixteen-year-old, have been persuaded to go anywhere with this obviously brilliant, sexy, magnetic, yet extremely erratic guy? Yet Sands’ portrayal of Shelley helps you imagine why. As much as I love Gabriel Byrne (who plays Byron in an extended, fondly shared joke with the spirit of Byron himself), Sands captures the screen whenever he appears.
Once, Julian Sands, technically, shared a screen with me. Trying to raise my spirits during a pandemic-rebooted study abroad course, participating in a virtual reading of Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes” near the end of a brutally cold January, fangirling about all the grad-school-famous scholars’ names on the screen, I looked again and saw a familiar face in the bottom right corner: aquiline features, shock of blonde hair, outlined against a nighttime window. The name in the Zoom window said simply Julian. When prompted, he said only that he was here to “get some inspiration” for one of his benefit readings for the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. He didn’t read with us. But his quiet presence suffused the meeting: here was a famous actor who had come to share the words of John Keats, whom we all loved. Just that. Only that. And this, too, is a gift an artist can give. Just showing up and being a fellow fan. Someone who also loves a thing of beauty. I’ll never forget that. Julian Sands, a great artist, showed up for other artists who mean a lot to us both.
Here he is reading from Derek Jarman’s journals at Prospect Cottage.
In the words he speaks here: Goodnight. Goodnight. Goodnight.