A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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.

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

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