Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night, released in 1996, is a handsome adaptation, well cast and eminently watchable. What it lacks in inspiration, it makes up for with faultless performances and a consistent tone. However, as much as I admire this thoroughly competent version of Shakespeare’s beloved comedy, I have to confess a decided lack of enthusiasm for it. For me, the enduring attraction to Shakespeare is his liveliness, his vibrancy, his vitality. And although expertly acted and pretty to look at, Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night suffers from a certain bloodlessness that renders it, in the end, unmemorable.
Admittedly, this is more a matter of taste than an accurate judgment of the film. Twelfth Night’s merits are many, and the (what I call) “bloodless” tone is intentional, stemming directly from the director’s interpretation. Nunn’s perspective on the story emphasizes pathos rather than outright comedy. Unlike Branagh’s cheerful Much Ado About Nothing, there are few belly laughs in this production. The interiors are often dark and smoky, cut through with shafts of light from the windows. The weather is misty and overcast. The costumes tend to earth tones or somber black. The atmosphere is generally oppressive.
This drab visual palette complements Nunn’s subdued, almost melancholy approach to the text. Bearing Nunn’s intentions in mind, his film is a success. The large cast of Shakespearean veterans capably breathe life into Nunn’s vision, and their collective comfort with the text (and Nunn’s version of it) make the experience of watching this film a thoroughly enjoyable one. Personally, though, I feel that tethering Shakespeare’s wild and whirling comedy to the ground by giving it a “realistic” treatment creates two problems: First, the laughs are few and far between. This is a fundamental problem in a comedy. Second, both the storyline of Twelfth Night and the characters that inhabit it are so unapologetically ridiculous, that a dramatic rendering results in unintentional humor, another fundamental problem for a comedy. For example, the opening sequence showing the shipwreck that separates the siblings, Viola and Sebastian, is so overwrought and dramatic, it unfavorably colors what follows.
Nunn’s distinctive approach is best viewed through the prism of Twelfth Night’s supporting cast. Typically played large and largely for laughs, Nunn instead imbues the secondary characters with an atypically subtle life “beyond the text,” as it were. Sir Toby Belch, Malvolio, Feste and Aguecheek are all characters that could easily be sketched in broad strokes and played purely for comic value. Nunn takes a higher road. He sees these characters as flesh-and-blood, with more dimensions to them than the words suggest. This is admirable, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s doing Shakespeare something of an injustice. Shakespeare was a crowd-pleaser, first and foremost, and Nunn’s efforts to add subtlety where there are no grounds for it undermine the Bard’s original intentions: to be funny, to give the groundlings a solid two hours entertainment. Of course, I could be totally wrong, since it’s dangerous to assume what Shakespeare’s intentions were.
Consider, though a few of the characters. Sir Toby Belch, often thought of as the poor man’s Falstaff, here seems to harbor some deep-seated, unexplained resentment for Malvolio, pushing Sir Toby to exact an almost sadistic revenge on the old steward. While Malvolio (expertly played by Nigel Hawthorne) is shown as a man who, though he lords it over his underlings, reads Amour in the evening, and is moved to exaltation when learning of Olivia’s supposed love for him. In other words, he is realistically pathetic, and very far from the one-dimensional villainy of, say, Don Juan in the aforementioned Much Ado. In addition, Aguecheek’s unrequited love for Lady Olivia is given touching treatment, delicately played by Richard E. Grant. And Ben Kingsley gives Feste a world-weary quality. This is a biting, cynical “fool,” more damaged goods than sparkling wit. Though the character shadings detract from the comedy, I would be remiss in chastising a director for attempting to add nuances instead of resorting to condescending oversimplification.
The best performances in the film deliberately toggle between comedy and drama. Sparks of life are supplied by a game troupe of leading players who appear very much at ease with Shakespeare’s knotty language. The highlight is Imogen Stubbs as Viola, the cross-dressing heroine. Her performance radiates a charming naturalism, unforced and appealing. She is so much fun to watch, she carries the movie on her padded shoulders. Helena Bonham Carter as the lovelorn Olivia is equally delightful, a well-suited match to Viola. Her porcelain features mask a fiery inner life, and it is fun to watch the distant Olivia gradually let her guard down as she is overcome with unexpected feeling for the witty and unwittingly charming Viola (in disguise as Cesario, servant to the Duke Orsino, a dashing and convincing Toby Stephens). The scenes between Viola and Olivia hit just the right note of comedic desperation on Olivia’s part and comedic exasperation on Viola’s.
So, I’ve said a lot of positive things about this movie. And there are countless more things that could be said. What, then is my problem? I think I’m coming off a bit grumpy here. I don’t mean to be unfairly critical to what is, in the end, a very handsome and entertaining movie. There’s not a single bad apple in the cast, and I was involved from the first frame to the last. I would recommend this version to anyone, particularly newcomers to the play, since Nunn does a good job of streamlining the story and making the action cinematic and understandable. I suppose, then, that maybe I was hoping for something more inspiring or memorable. It’s worth remembering that Nunn directed 1979’s production of Macbeth with Ian Mckellen and Judi Dench, one of the best performances of Shakespeare I’ve seen on film, a truly unforgettable piece-of work. By comparison, Twelfth Night is fairly tepid.
As another point-of-reference, this movie came out in 1996, the same year as Branagh’s Hamlet. Compared to that half-baked misfire, Twelfth Night appears the very model of restraint and professional competency. The funny thing is, Branagh’s semi-masterpiece, semi-disaster will still be rattling around in my head long after the memory of this one has dissipated.
Here’s a vidclip of the opening of the film:
Here’s the scene where Viola (as Cesario) first courts Olivia on behalf of Orsino: