A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 217 – Twelfth Night (1996)

Twelfth Night (1996) – October 3rd, 2010

One of the things I tend to do while watching a movie or writing a review is to poke around IMDB, reading trivia and goofs, looking at the cast and crew, things like that. I avoid the summaries and reviews and oh god, the comments, but I do look at the entries for the movie and then sometimes particular people who were involved, mostly to see what else they’ve done. In movies like this, where the cast is chock full of familiar faces (oh so many), it’s fun to see some of the lesser-known names (and compared to some of the leads, lesser known is somewhat relative). So I was quite pleased to see that the writer and director of this production, Trevor Nunn, was also heavily involved with the minimalist production of Macbeth that we reviewed a couple of weeks back. They’re entirely different productions, but I find that in itself fascinating.

As written, I think I like this better than Much Ado About Nothing, to be honest. But while this is a lovely production of the play, it isn’t quite as good as Branagh’s Much Ado. An odd contradiction, but Branagh is tough to compare to. There’s a lightness and a joy to Branagh’s Much Ado that I think is somewhat lacking in this version of Twelfth Night. It could be the setting. Instead of the golden hues and warm weather of Much Ado, this movie is full of wet days and fog, misty coastlines and cliffs. It feels more like Henry V in that respect, which puts it all in a much more somber mood. It’s a pity, really, because I do like this play and think it’s a fun comedy but this production has sobered it up a good deal.

As this is one of Shakespeare’s comedies, it involves mistaken identities and disguises and lovers and confusion. That’s one way you know it’s a comedy. Also, there are weddings at the end. That’s another clue. But here it’s played more as a romance with occasional comedic interludes. The plot is somewhat convoluted, involving a set of twins who end up confusing a duke, a countess and everyone they meet when the sister dresses up as a boy after they’re split up. They were traveling by ship and when the ship went down, each made it to shore, but believed the other dead. Sebastian is rescued by a sea captain and Viola makes it to land with some of the crew. She disguises herself and ends up in the employ of Duke Orsino, who sends his new young assistant to woo Countess Olivia, who refuses to see any suitors. Olivia falls for the young man she believes Viola to be, Viola falls for the Duke but cannot say anything while in disguise, and it all comes to a head when Sebastian shows up and looks enough like Viola-in-disguise that everyone thinks there’s just the one young man.

There’s a B plot involving a number of Olivia’s servants playing an involved and rather nasty prank on another servant, but aside from some of them eventually getting involved in the mistaken identity plot, it has little bearing on the A plot. It’s got some good performances, though, so that’s good! It’s really a pity that they’re trapped in the B plot. Nigel Hawthorn does an excellent job with the uptight and much-abused Malvolio, and Richard E. Grant, Imelda Staunton and Mel Smith torment him with glee. I don’t much like what they do, but the performances of them doing it are excellent.

The main plot is well performed as well, with plenty of good moments for the three major characters. I do have a quibble in that the fourth, Sebastian, is mostly MIA for the majority of the production. While Viola’s carrying messages to Olivia and chatting with her in the garden, and then fencing with Orsino and being his buddy, Sebastian is… um. Hanging out with the sea captain? He doesn’t get much face time. In the interests of all things being equal, I’d have liked to see more with him to build up his side of the mistaken identity thing the way Viola’s side is. But really, it’s a minor quibble. The story as told here is much about Viola. It’s done more for drama than laughs and while it’s not my favorite choice, it is an interesting one. The idea of this young woman, hiding herself as a man in order to be allowed to do things a young woman could not? That’s great! Sure, it was intended as humor by Shakespeare, but in light of the fact that there are still women today who have to disguise themselves as male in order to do things like work and shop, there’s the potential for some drama there too, and Imogen Stubbs does an excellent job with Viola, playing off both Toby Stephens as Orsino and Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia.

The trouble with playing the main plot as a drama/romance is that it all comes back to comedy at the end, with the mistaken identities leading to accusations and a marriage Viola doesn’t know about and the eventual reveal. And then there’s the bit where Olivia’s all “Oh, so you’re not the man I’m in love with? Oh well, you look similar enough!” to Sebastian. That’s a plot thread tied up in a big floppy bow as only a comedy can, though it is aided quite a bit by the casting of Stephen Mackintosh as Sebastian, whom I’d never have pegged as having a resemblance to Imogen Stubbs, but it works quite well really. Anyhow, it somewhat dismisses the whole idea of the romances being played at all seriously. And then there’s Ben Kingsley as Feste, the fool, narrating and poking his nose in and singing little ditties. It all makes for a rather uneven production, but I do like it anyhow.

I like it because aside from the B plot, which is objectionable to me mostly because it comes off as mean-spirited bullying, there’s little in here that makes me have to accept something that skeeves me on the basis of the time period it’s from. I don’t have to swallow the “Hero would be better off dead” crap from Much Ado About Nothing, or the horribly racist bits of Merchant of Venice, or the utter misogyny of Taming of the Shrew. And I enjoy parts of all of those, but I have to grit my teeth and repeat ‘time period’ at least a little for each. I don’t have to do this here. Olivia’s pestered by a man she’s not interested in, sure, but she doesn’t end up marrying him anyhow. She makes her own choice. Sure, it’s a bizarre choice, but it’s hers. Viola isn’t decried as a whore for dressing as a man. And really, she’s quite a sympathetic character. Almost everyone is. I love that. So I’m willing to overlook the decisions to play up the drama and push the comedy to the background. I get what the intent was and I appreciate it. And I do so enjoy watching some Shakespeare without wincing.


October 3, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Twelfth Night (1996)

October 3, 2010

Twelfth Night (1996)

It was a production of this play that was the very first Shakespeare I ever saw. It was a BBC made for television production that was broadcast on Chanel 2 (the Boston PBS affiliate) way back when I was about five or six years old. I remember hardly any of it now of course, but I have vague recollections of how it felt to me at the time. I was bewildered of course. The language was foreign to me and the plot inscrutable. I was supposed to believe that nobody in the play could understand that this woman was not a woman, for example. (My father told me that as originally played it would have been even more nonsensical since the woman disguised as a man would have been played by a man.) But even then I was intrigued. It was like a glimpse into a strange different world. I may have only understood one word in five and I might have been completely unable to figure out what was going on most of the time, but I wanted to see more of this world.

This is not that simple stage production that I watched so long ago. It is a big expensive motion picture adaptation filled with a big budget, beautiful locations, and a huge cast of big name actors. Here’s the Oscar Winning Ben Kingsley as the fool Feste. And here’s Helena Bonham Carter as the ever mourning Lady Olivia. Nigel Hawthorne (of Yes, Minister fame) plays the pompous Malvolio. The whole movie was full of familiar faces from other movies and television programs from Imelda Staunton to Richard E Grant.

The story makes a little more sense to me now all these years later, but only a little. Shakespeare seems to have thought that there was great humor to be had in confusing his audience. Two siblings are separated in a shipwreck, each supposing that the other has died. The sister disguises herself as a man and enters into the service of a local duke called Orsino. Orsino is obsessed with Lady Olivia, a woman who refuses any suitors and loves no man. When Orsino sends Viola (in her manly guise) to plead for Olivia’s hand it is Viola that Olivia falls in love with. At the same time Viola falls for the duke Orsino, though she dare not tell him of her love since he knows her only as a lad in his employ. That’s the A plot.

The B plot, in a sort of upstairs/downstairs way, involves some house-guests of Olivia’s. There’s her cousin Tobey and his rambunctious friend Andrew. I don’t much enjoy their side-plot. They are drunken louts and knaves who pick fights with everybody. They come up with a plot to destroy the pompous Malvolio who runs Olivia’s house. They duel with Viola and later with her brother Sebastian when he eventually shows up. Malvolio may be a bit of a twit, but he never seems to deserve the treatment he is given here in the name of comedy. He needs to have been considerably more nasty for the scope of his comeuppance.

I do really enjoy this production. Mostly for the two female leads and for Ben Kingsley. Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia is just so much fun to watch. She acts very much with her eyes I think. So much of her character is in the way she glances and glares. Imogen Stubbs as Viola has probably the toughest part in the movie. She needs to appear to everybody in the play to be a young man and yet to be able to profess her love for Orsino. She gets a lot of really great speeches in that spirit. Such as when she tells Orsino how well she knows that a woman is capable of love as passionate and deep as that which he holds for Olivia.

Ben Kingsley as Feste is depicted as the king of beggars. He’s the narrator and the most duplicitous of the rogues in the B plot and a sort of winking friend to the viewer. It’s a fantastic role. He speaks all in riddles, and is clearly the most clever person in the play. He’s Puck from Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Chorus from Henry V all bundled up together into one merry trickster. It’s the kind of role anybody would kill to play, and Kingsley clearly has a lot of fun doing it. He has such a glint in his eye.

I really enjoy this movie. Aside from the whole Malvolio plot that is. I love the delirious fantasy of it all. I love the movie’s playfulness and verve. And of course I have a soft spot in my heart for the play itself, since it was my introduction to Shakespeare in the first place. It broadened my horizons and introduced me to a treasure-trove of wonderful new worlds with language so clever and fun that it has already lasted hundreds of years. I look forward to our next Shakespeare review – whatever that may be.

October 3, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment