*. I started out resisting Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night. There’s some narration by Feste at the start that isn’t in Shakespeare and then some talk of a state of war that’s also new and unnecessary. Then there’s the general look of the film. This is Illyria, which is to say another magical Shakespearean setting that’s just meant to be some romantic place far away. Meaning far away from the real world. But here Illyria is Cornwall and it looks almost like realism was what Nunn was going for.
*. This put me on my guard. But once this Twelfth Night gets going, and it gets going slowly, it’s a movie that won me over. I actually found myself believing in the nonsense plot, with Imogen Stubbs and Steven Mackintosh actually looking pretty similar as the twins Viola and Sebastian. And there was a feeling of real romantic attraction among the perfect couples. None of the characters comes across as a simple caricature, with even the love-junkie Orsino (Toby Stephens) and the gull Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant) having multiple sides.
*. I’m inclined to give a lot of the credit to Nunn, a veteran stage director who doesn’t do much with the material here as a movie but lets his cast do their thing and puts them in the best possible position to succeed. Meanwhile, the players are all well cast, with the possible exception of Ben Kingsley as Feste. I’m still trying to make up my mind about him. He’s certainly not a very jolly clown. But then, is he meant to be?
*. The quality of the actors also lets Nunn add some subtle wrinkles and texture to the proceedings. There’s an implication, for example, that Feste knows that Cesario (Stubbs) is a woman that I liked. And we can see that Maria (Imelda Staunton) has her doubts about Toby’s treatment of Malvolio even if she’s just observing in the distance. I call these wrinkles because they do roughen a conventional, smooth reading of the play, but I think they both work.
*. In his review, Roger Ebert references something important that can’t be stressed enough: “Shakespeare’s language is not hard to understand when spoken by actors who are comfortable with the rhythm and know the meaning. It can be impenetrable when declaimed by unseasoned actors with more energy than experience (as the screaming gang members in Romeo + Juliet demonstrate).” This is the problem with so many realistic or contemporary updates of Shakespeare that keep the original language but give us characters who either have no sense of the rhythm of those lines or who have been directed not to deliver them in a dramatic manner but more realistically. Which ends up being less realistic because it just make a hash out of everything.
*. One of the abiding difficulties with Twelfth Night has to do with the treatment of Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne here). Personally, I’m in the camp of those who think he is “most notoriously abused,” and I don’t find all that he is put through very amusing. I think this is where Nunn’s sympathies lie as well, as Sir Toby (Mel Smith) is not a very likable figure here.
*. You can also see this redirection of our sympathies in the way the film ends. Toby and Maria are ushered off in hugger-mugger (will she even go through with the wedding?), while Malvolio’s big line about being revenged on the whole pack of them is downplayed (tossed off, over the shoulder, as he climbs the stairs). He later exits all cleaned up and heading off, one assumes, to a new position.
*. Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing had come out just a few years earlier and I wonder if its presentation of the scene where Benedict is fooled was in Nunn’s mind when he did the scene where Malvolio finds the letter. Of course they’re very similar scenes anyway, but the way it plays out here really makes me think Nunn had Branagh’s film in mind.
*. Yes, there are time when it misses a lighter, more cinematic touch, especially given the running time. But overall this is an entirely satisfying production without any real weak spots. It’s one of the few Shakespeare films I know of that I can honestly say made me like the play itself a little better. That’s impressive.