Judge Patrick Naugle will never look at horses the same way again.
A moment of love becomes a crime of passion.
Psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Richard Burton, Cleopatra) has treated all forms of metal sickness in troubled young youths, but he's never seen anything like the case of young Alan Strang (Peter Firth, Chill Factor). Alan has been brought in to work with Dr. Dysart because he has blinded six horses with a metal spike, and his mental state is shaky at best. At first Alan dismisses Dysart's inquiries about his past and stonewalls him by singing advertising jingles. Dysart is insistent, and is soon able to probe deep into the troubled boy's history, discovering a mother whose religious fervor has shaped Alan's views on love and sex and an atheist father who has also done the boy no favors. As Dr. Dysart continues with Alan's therapy, he attempts to put together the pieces of why Alan would commit such a brutal act, as well as coming to grips with his own personal demons.
Everyone adores horses. Seriously, find me a person who hasn't love in their heart for our four legged friends, and I'll show you a man whose heart is a solid lump of granite. Horses are majestic creatures; subservient to humans even though they could they could stomp on our faces until we were dead. And yet, they don't; they allow us to make them our servants, riding until they're deathly exhausted. In a way, horses feel almost mythical which may be why fictional stories portray them as magical creatures with wings (Pegasus) or horns (unicorns). In Equus, the poor horses get the short end of the stick when a young boy blinds half a dozen of them. Why is at the center of a mystery to which many theatre fans already know the answer.
Equus is based on Peter Shaffer's 1973 theatrical show, which was released to quite a bit of controversy. The original stage play (which featured Firth in the role over 1,000 times) garnered controversy for using underage naked boys in the role of Alan Strang (most notably Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe in a 2007 Broadway version). In the filmed version of Equus the story and characters take place normally and in modern day. This varies from the theatrical show, finding a very minimal stage and cast members wearing face horse heads. Many moviegoers cried foul on the film, believing the reality based film undermined the ideas the original stage show tried to convey. The simple truth is that "Equus" on stage HAS to be different than the film. Cinema is a different medium, for what works on a theatrical platform often doesn't necessarily translate to celluloid.
Equus is a film seething with sexual and religious undertones that is exceptionally heady to digest. It's a drama, but often falls under the category of crime thriller, although in the most unusual way. There are no CSI investigators or harrowing moments of action, because we know who the criminal is. What we don't know is his motivation. Why did Alan Strang do what he did? The strength of the story lies in its slow but methodical unfolding. The imagery by director Sydney Lumet (The Verdict) is often startling, including the embrace of a naked man with one of the horses. Schaffer's theatrical show and screenplay (written by the playwright) doesn't try to tie everything up into a pretty package at the end of the film. It's clear that Alan is damaged goods, and the film wisely doesn't slap on a tacky happy or contrived ending (the film's concludes as it should, in the best and possibly only way it could have).
Richard Burton's storied career has long been documented in books and newspapers. By 1977 Burton was struggling with a second divorce from superstar Elizabeth Taylor and a very crippling battle against alcoholism. In fact, Burton was forced to make the lamentable Exorcist II: The Heretic just to show the studios he could make Equus sober. Burton's acting has sometimes been criticized for being over-the-top, which never becomes an issue. Burton's Dr. Dysart is a man who is world weary, consumed by his melancholy until he comes face to face with the odd Alan. Burton gives a fantastic performance here (subtle nuances offer an even deeper character than what's revealed on the surface) and finds a way to really draw the audience into the story. Burton was awarded an Oscar nomination for his performance, and rightfully so.
Complementing Burton's performance is Peter Firth as Alan Strang, a frizzy haired boy whose mental state is in question throughout the entire film. It's a tall order to try and match wits with an actor of Burton's caliber, and Firth pulls it off with impressive bravado. Alan is such an enigmatic figure—when he first appears he's singing songs for a Doublemint Gum radio commercial—that it's hard to get a grasp on what is behind his strange facade. As the film slowly unfolds, so does Alan's motives and back story. This offers Firth a chance to give a performance that can be both repellent and fascinating to witness.
Equus may be a rough film for some viewers to get through. It's by no means a fast paced film, and running nearly two and a half hours means it may try your patience. Even with some slow patches, there are good things to be pulled from Lumet's version of this classic show. The reason Equus really works is mostly because of the engaging performances by the main leads; Burton and Firth are extraordinary actors who give truly extraordinary performances. For that reason alone, I can easily recommend Equus.
Equus (Blu-ray) is presented in 1.85:1/1080p HD widescreen, and Twilight Time's work on this MGM catalog title is excellent. Although the visuals may not have the razzle-dazzle of more recent releases, for a film that is almost four decades old, this looks great. Colors and sharp and solid and black levels appear dark and even. The DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio mix, while faithfully representing the original soundtrack, isn't very exciting. The rear speakers aren't used at all and the mix is mostly front loaded. No alternate subtitles or soundtracks are included.
Bonus features include an audio commentary from Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman (regular Twilight Time commentators), an excellent two hour documentary from 1988 on Richard Burton ("In From the Cold: The World of Richard Burton"), a theatrical trailer for the film, a trailer for MGM's 90th Anniversary, and an isolated music score.
A slow moving film that rewards our patience with intriguing performances from Richard Burton and Peter Firth. Not Guilty!
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Studio: Twilight Time
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