Starring Imogen Stubbs, Helena Bonham-Carter, Ben Kingsley, Toby Stephens, and Nigel Hawthorne
reviewed (again) 2010 by John Murphy
(for John’s 2004 review, click here)
One of the nice things about writing a blog is that nothing is set in stone. A review in print tends to make an author’s opinion (arrived at via contingency’s endless byways) seem inevitable and complete, like a Papal Bull or a design etched in acid. We all know this isn’t the case, but since writers rarely have the chance to revise opinions after publication, the printed opinion must stand, rather like an awkward-looking sentinel guarding a long-abandoned citadel.
As you may have gathered, the blog vs. print preamble is my philosophical way of admitting that I was wrong about something. In the greenery of my youth, I gave Trevor Nunn’s film adaptation of Twelfth Night the short shrift. I had my reasons, some of which still stand. But there was a crimped lack of generosity in my earlier review that demands some amendment.
Context is part of it. It’s easier to see now where Twelfth Night fits into the trajectory of cinematic Shakespeare. The 1990′s were a Boom decade for the Bard, mostly thanks to the surprise critical and commercial success of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. Nunn’s film — which was released in the same year as Branagh’s Hamlet and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet — has many elective affinities with Branagh’s populist Bard-vision. The late 19th century seems the go-to time-period: not so long ago as to be distant, but not too recent for the language to seem out-of-place. Scenes are invented, lines cut and rearranged, to minimize audience confusion. The Royal Shakespeare Company furnishes many of the cast members, and the composer even does a passable Patrick Doyle imitation.
Twelfth Night was thus caught in Branagh’s towline, and suffers in some ways by the comparison. For all his faults as a director, Branagh is never without ambition or energy. Nunn’s approach to his material is more leisurely, even somber at moments. Yet even if the visual style can be a bit leaden, I didn’t give him enough credit. As befits a director best known for his work on stage, Nunn elicits top-shelf performances from an impressive ensemble. Standouts include Richard E. Grant, full of pathos and bathos as Olivia’s slightly slow suitor, Sir Andrew Aguecheek; Ben Kingsley as a feisty Feste, somewhat menacing; and a very fine Helena Bonham-Carter, toning down the eccentricities to play a more appealing version of the black-shrouded Goth-girl.
The real pinch-hitter, however, is Imogen Stubbs as Viola. Stubbs was the most moving and convincing Desdemona I’ve seen in Nunn’s version of Othello from the late 80′s, and she brings the same irrepressible energy and charm to this significantly less doom-laden role. She’s simply delightful to watch and carries the movie on her padded shoulders.
Although Nunn is not the most visually inventive of directors, his cinematographer gives the movie an autumnal, Pre-Raphaelite-like burnished glow that attractively suits the melancholy undercurrents of the story. Nigel Hawthorne, excellent as always, brings a shade of poignancy and wounded pride to the part of Malvolio, whose fifth act vow to be “reveng’d on the whole pack of you,” casts a pall over the otherwise clear-skied happy ending. Hawthorne’s performance, along with Stubbs’ and the rest of the fine ensemble, keep the film afloat and guarantee a thoroughly enjoyable time in their company.
[Did you know Ben Kingsley was an erstwhile folksinger? Here's proof in his role as Feste:]