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.

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October 3, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. This is my favorite Shakespearan play and my fav adaptation, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it was so much better- and I think you hit it. No gritting teeth with “Time Period” reminding.

    Thank you, you’re awesome.

    Comment by Mecca | October 3, 2010 | Reply

    • You’re welcome! I think having watched Much Ado About Nothing not too long ago, and having had to deal with the time period stuff there, it was in my head tonight while I watched this. And it really stood out, not just because of the way it was written, but because the more dramatic interpretation of Viola’s plot really highlights it.

      Comment by ajmovies | October 3, 2010 | Reply


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