This Shakespearean comedy taught Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees an important life lesson: When shipwrecked on a hostile island, remember to wear your false moustache.
Our review of Twelfth Night, published May 12th, 2008, is also available.
"If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."—Fabian (Peter Gunn)
I just learned that a new big-screen version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is in the works, a modern-day update in a high school setting starring Amanda Bynes as Viola. I can't help but wonder why filmmakers seem to be so uncomfortable with Shakespeare's comedies; it appears that they prefer disguising them, as in 10 Things I Hate About You, or filtering them through a high concept, like Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost, to approaching them straight on. Yet acclaimed stage director Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night shows just how successful Shakespearean comedy can be on the screen without all the coy distancing devices. Funny, poignant, and romantic, it's one of my favorite Shakespeare adaptations, and its appearance at last on DVD is cause for celebration.
Facts of the Case
A tangle of mistaken identities and misguided wooing begins when plucky Viola (Imogen Stubbs) washes up on the shore of Illyria after a shipwreck. Disguising herself as a man, she takes a job with Duke Orsino (Toby Stephens, Die Another Day) and acts as his ambassador to the woman he loves, the aristocratic Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter, Big Fish). Olivia, however, fancies the duke's new messenger more than the duke himself, and she ardently pursues young "Cesario"—who has fallen in love with Orsino. To further complicate matters, Viola's twin brother, Sebastian (Steven Mackintosh), whom she believes to be drowned, arrives in Illyria and lands smack in the middle of this love triangle when everyone mistakes him for Cesario/Viola.
Meanwhile, Olivia's maid, Maria (Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake), concocts a scheme to humble the pompous steward Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne, The Madness of King George) and thus endear herself to Olivia's carousing uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Mel Smith, whom fans of The Princess Bride will recognize). To the delight of Sir Toby and his vacuous hanger-on, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant, The Scarlet Pimpernel), she forges a note that persuades Malvolio that Olivia is in love with him. Observing all these deceptions and misconceptions is Feste (Ben Kingsley, Schindler's List), Olivia's fool, who alone seems immune to the folly all around him.
If you demand realism in a movie, the joyous silliness of Twelfth Night is not for you. Of course the plot is unbelievable; that's partly the point. Twelfth Night shows us just how foolish lovers are, how love becomes a form of self-deluding lunacy. Olivia is too besotted with Cesario to notice that "he" is a woman; Malvolio is too much in love with himself to see that Olivia has zero romantic interest in him; and Orsino is so caught up in his own lovesick languishings that he never even bothers to get up off the sofa and go visit the object of his yearning.
Beneath this giddy romantic surface, though, is a more bittersweet undercurrent. Maria's love for Sir Toby introduces a mature note into the romantic couplings. She is middle-aged, and has few illusions: She knows she will face a lonely future if she cannot elicit a marriage proposal from the careless Toby. Even the younger characters live and love under the shadow of death and sorrow: Viola is grieving for her lost, beloved brother, and Olivia too is mourning her recently dead brother (although she carries her mourning to a dramatic extreme). For others—like Antonio (Nicholas Farrell), the sea captain who is devoted to Sebastian—trust and affection appear to lead to betrayal. To love, after all, is to be vulnerable. That message, and the film's two emotional tones—laughter and poignancy—mingle in the subplot about Malvolio's humiliation, which starts out as broad comedy but develops into something more somber.
The unusually pensive interpretations of the characters of Maria and Feste help to enhance this autumnal quality and add emotional richness to the film. Maria is traditionally a bawdy, comic role, but at director Nunn's behest Staunton takes her in the direction of a Chekhov character, giving her a kind of melancholy dignity. Feste as Kingsley plays him is as much a philosopher as an entertainer, and his double-edged comments show that he sees life with a clearer eye than the fools and lovers whom he entertains. His relationship to Olivia is unusually intimate, more like a confidant and family member than an employee, as if she finds in him something she lost with the deaths of her father and brother. Both Maria and Feste bring a more sober perspective to the story as they become increasingly uncomfortable with the growing cruelty of Toby's taunting of Malvolio. The downside of Nunn's interpretation of the Malvolio plot is that its bleakness threatens to unbalance the film's conclusion. However, it's a tour de force performance by Nigel Hawthorne, who takes the character from sneering killjoy to absurd comic butt to a figure of genuine pathos.
The other outstanding performance is that of Imogen Stubbs as Viola. As the heart of the story, she has the truly crucial role, and she is sublime. Although she is Trevor Nunn's wife, her performance makes it obvious that she was cast not for that reason but because of her rightness in the role. American viewers may know Stubbs chiefly for her conniving, saccharine Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility, but in Viola she brings to life a character of an entirely different stripe, a courageous heroine who has the initiative to make a new life for herself when it seems she has lost everything. Even though she is burdened with her grief for her lost brother and her seemingly hopeless love for the oblivious Orsino, she seems to enjoy creating a cheeky new personality as Cesario. Stubbs beautifully unites the film's impulses of both sorrow and joy, making Viola's journey toward happiness truly moving.
Nunn shows a confident command of the material (after all, he was the Royal Shakespeare Company's artistic director for almost two decades) and a nice sensitivity to tone, both dramatic and comic. It's enjoyable to see how he takes advantage of the gender-switching disguise by placing his heroine in a series of manly predicaments—like smoking her first cigar and sponging her master's back while he bathes. Nunn also avoids the feeling of a filmed play, one of the major pitfalls of adapting Shakespeare, by using filmic devices like cross-cutting between scenes and creating a credit montage in which Viola transforms herself into Cesario.
Nunn's direction receives a significant assist from the excellent musical score by Shaun Davey. By turns jaunty, tender, foreboding, and triumphant, the Celtic-tinged musical compositions sell the big emotional moments and give a great boost to the story's energy. Davey's melodies for Feste's songs are memorable and irresistibly hummable, and even though most of these songs are given minimalist treatment in the film—sung by Kingsley in a pleasant but untrained voice, usually to solo instrumental accompaniment—they convey mood every bit as well as full-scale production numbers.
The musical score also benefits from the clarity and punch of a solid Dolby 2.0 Surround audio mix. Occasionally dialogue volume level is uneven, but I suspect this is the result of location audio recording that should have been looped. As far as visual quality is concerned, I've had to put up with my pan-and-scan VHS copy of Twelfth Night for years now, so I'm overjoyed that Image has provided a widescreen transfer—and a very clean one, at that. The only obvious flaws were speckling and a bit of grain in some scenes; otherwise, this is a clear, attractive transfer and beautifully shows off the Cornwall locations.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As enjoyable as it is, I have to admit that this movie has its flaws. The pace sometimes bogs down in the first half, and some of the scenes that I suspect I should find hilarious just don't come off as funny enough. In particular, although I'm a fan of Richard E. Grant, his Sir Andrew Aguecheek seems at first to be too broad and caricatured. Helena Bonham Carter's performance could also use some fine-tuning, since her Olivia is on the loopy side; surely this character would not be giggling at the infuriating behavior of her uncle and the sexual advances of Malvolio.
I was also disappointed that the extras on this disc turned out to be so minor. The material called "Behind the Scenes" (8:30) is not a featurette, as I had anticipated, but actual footage of several scenes being shot (and re-shot). I don't feel I really gained anything by seeing the boom operator at work. The "Interview Excerpts" are brief snippets in which Nunn, co-producer David Parfitt, and a number of cast members appear one by one to answer a question or two about the production, sometimes simply the request "Describe your character." Total time: less than seven minutes. Finally, an advertising sequence plays a trailer and two TV spots for the film. These stress the cross-dressing angle, invoking comparisons to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and The Birdcage (and giving a lot of play to the song "Macho Man"). I can't blame the studio for using sensationalistic content to get people's attention, but the marketing tries so hard to overcome stuffy literary associations that it gives very little sense of what the movie's really like.
Twelfth Night's subtitle, What You Will, implicitly promises something for everybody—and the movie comes close to bringing off that ambitious goal. Although fans of the play will probably appreciate it more than Shakespeare neophytes, the only mandatory viewer requirements are a sense of humor and a willingness to suspend your disbelief. If you meet these criteria, you'll find this Illyrian idyll a highly enjoyable way to spend a few hours.
Sir Toby Belch is still sobering up in the drunk tank, but all other parties are declared not guilty and are free to go.
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