Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Once Upon Twelfth Night, Or What You Will

Some links before I get started today. Norma wrote about medical issues and a new idea.  Yesterday having had been a Friday, Parsnip had a Square Dog Friday post. Krisztina had Thanksgiving ideas. Shelly related some family history. The Whisk posted about meatloaf.

Today I have a movie review....

“Make no compare between that love a woman can bear me and that I owe Olivia.” ~ Orsino

“The more fool, Madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven.” ~ Feste

“I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.” ~ Malvolio

“Why this is very midsummer’s madness.” ~ Olivia

“I left no ring with her! What means this lady? Fortune forbid my outside have not charmed her.” ~ Viola

Aside from a place of prominence on stage for centuries, the works of the Bard have often been adapted for the big screen by a wealth of creative talent. Laurence Olivier was a master in the genre in the classic era, and Kenneth Branagh has returned to Shakespeare’s works many times in our era. One of his best comedies, Twelfth Night, has often been staged around the world, but not so often brought into the cinema. The story that plays around with gender bending humour and upstairs-downstairs dynamics in a wealthy household appeals to audiences after all this time, and the roles are particularly sought after by actors. British stage director Trevor Nunn adapted the story for the silver screen in 1996, setting it in the 19th Century with a mixture of Victorian and Central European influences.

We first meet a pair of twins, Viola (Imogen Stubbs) and Sebastian (Steven Mackintosh) aboard a ship bound for home in Messaline. A storm wrecks their ship, and the twins are separated, each believing the other is dead. Viola washes up on the shore of Illyria with most of the survivors. Devastated by her grief, uncertain of where to go, and in a country in a state of perpetual tension with her own, she asks the captain to help her disguise herself as a man.

Viola takes on the name Cesario, coming into the employment of the Duke Orsino (Toby Stephens). He’s infatuated with the Countess Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter), who will see no suitors after the recent death of her brother. He sends Cesario with messages of his love for Olivia in the hopes that a new face might be admitted, and off she goes. Things get considerably complicated when Olivia finds Cesario much more interesting than the pleadings of the Duke. While all of this is going on, Sebastian is still out there, in the company of a sailor, Antonio (Nicholas Farrell). And there’s household politics going on in the home of Olivia. Her pompous steward Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne) is at odds with her drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch (Mel Smith) and his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant). Maria (Imelda Staunton), Fabian (Peter Gunn), and the fool Feste (Ben Kingsley) are all caught up in Sir Toby’s plot to bring about the downfall of the prudish steward.

Nunn as a director has done a tremendous mixture of work, mostly on stage, but also on television and film, and he goes back and forth between Shakespeare and contemporary work. He adapted Shakespeare’s play for the big screen, condensing where needed for a movie running time, and wisely chose to set it in a mid-19th Century setting. The clothing varies between a mixture of Victorian styles, particularly for the women, and north Central European, in terms of uniforms for Orsino and his men. The props, things like muskets, for instance, or horse drawn wagons, feel very much of that era. This is a good decision, since Shakespeare seems to work particularly well in that era (Elizabethan era fashions, sufficed to say, look abysmal). He shot the film on location in the Cornwall area of England, particularly at two country houses, Padstow and Lanhydrock House, and the locations are beautiful, both a contrast from each other, both feeling very much like the domains of their residents. Nunn’s style of telling the story moves things along nicely, and respects the dialogue, which is an essential requirement in Shakespeare.

The crew makes full use of the locations to their advantage, and it leaves the audience wishing to walk through those halls, stroll through those gardens, and spend time in a place that feels familiar all while passing itself off as a fictional country. I enjoyed the way Nunn filmed the work as a whole- it doesn’t feel like theatrical staging, and yet respects its origins and its humour. He opens up with the shipwreck, for instance, an event alluded to in the play, but not seen, and he does well with it. Compare this opening sequence, for instance, with the closing sequence two years later in Shakespeare In Love, where Gwyneth Paltrow’s Viola, the inspiration for the character in that particular film, survives a shipwreck. A long interlude in a garden maze, for instance, where Malvolio is being lured into a trap by his antagonist through a letter, is filmed in a way that allows the audience to keep track of where everyone is. And a duel between Cesario and Sir Andrew has a brisk, chaotic, and very funny manner in the way Nunn films it.

When we first meet Olivia, she’s in mourning clothes, all black, including a veil, and the costuming department wisely change that as the story goes along. She’s charmed by Cesario, and that reflects itself in the lighter, more colourful clothing she wears. The costuming department also came up with just the right look for the uniforms of Orsino and his court. The soldiers all look very much like military officers, and rather like the sort of people you don’t want to start a fight with, all while still looking like they’re out of the 19th Century. One other aspect from the crew’s side of things that I enjoyed is the work of composer Shaun Davey. He’s an Irish composer who works mostly in classical composition, but has occasionally turned to film scores, in projects like Waking Ned Devine and The Tailor Of Panama. Davey weaves together romantic and comedic themes, and uses a mixture of symphonic orchestra and solo instruments in this score. He also adapts Shakespeare’s lyrics for the occasional song by Feste (Ben Kingsley really does have a good singing voice).

The cast are all marvelous in their roles, drawn from British acting circles, mostly from stage backgrounds. Nicholas Farrell has that background, has been on the big screen in Othello, Branagh’s film adaptation of Hamlet, as well as Amazing Grace. His Antonio is something of a fugitive, a man with reason to avoid the court of Orsino, having had once been in conflict with them. Nonetheless, he is a loyal friend to Sebastian after saving his life, putting himself in peril by staying with him. And at a critical moment late in the play, he shares in the confusion many other characters have about the twins- and has an angry reaction that works perfectly, hinting at the gravity of the actor. 

Steven Mackintosh gets the part of Sebastian, which can be something of a thankless role. The audience is much more invested in his twin sister, so he gets the short end of things. Mackintosh bears enough of a resemblance to Stubbs that the audience can buy the twins angle of it all, even while we must suspend disbelief that no one is really noticing slight differences in their appearances. He gets more to do as things move towards the end of the film, particularly in getting confused by the lady Olivia and getting caught up in a fight with people he’s never met, and yet who think he’s someone else.

The late Nigel Hawthorne (Yes Minister, Richard III, Demolition Man, Amistad) gets a great role as Malvolio- as much of a pompous ass as the character is, actors love to play him. He’s full of himself as the story begins, a man who sees himself as the model of good behaviour, and who frowns on misbehaviour such as that coming from Toby and Andrew. He’s a sanctimonious man, sneering at anyone who he dislikes, and feeling very much in charge of the household. He’s devoted to Olivia, even harbouring feelings for her. And while he certainly deserves his comeuppance- and it gives the actor some wonderful comedic opportunities- we can’t help but feel for the man by the time it’s all done. It’s a performance that brings out laughter and yet works in a poignant way as well.

Imelda Staunton would, years later, go on to play the seemingly polite but really malicious Dolores Umbridge in a couple of the Harry Potter films. This was the first time I ever saw her in a film, and I like her as Maria, Olivia’s closest servant, the senior maid in the house. She scolds Feste, who has a habit of wandering off whenever he pleases, and scolds Sir Toby for his drunkenness, but at the same time, there’s a fondness in the character for both, and Staunton particularly has good chemistry with both Smith and Kingsley.

The late Mel Smith, who was so delightful as the Albino in The Princess Bride, has a comic touch in most of his previous work in Britain. He plays the debauched, drunken foolish uncle Toby in just the right way. He’s a man who likes his drink, who’s rather crude and can be occasionally even unpleasant. He dislikes with intensity the tut-tut attitude of Malvolio- there’s a moment or two that we can imagine Toby hitting Malvolio just on principle. There’s also something of a devious, opportunistic side to the character, perfectly willing to benefit from his friend’s untimely death if it comes to that, or finding himself entertained by manipulating his friend into a duel. If we knew this guy in real life, we’d avoid him, and yet as a character he’s amusing.

Richard E. Grant gets another good role as Sir Andrew, a man who loves to drink, thinks of himself as a bright and eligible fellow, and yet is really, really stupid. He has designs of his own on Olivia, and yet is oblivious to her dislike of him. He fails to pick up on social cues from other characters, things that most people would grasp immediately. He doesn’t seem to understand that his friend is playing him for a fool. And when it comes down to it, Sir Andrew is something of a coward. Grant gets to play all of these qualities, and does so in a way that tickles the funnybone.

Ben Kingsley might be playing the fool in all of this, but his Feste is the wisest character in the whole story. He moves back and forth between the two households, playing whatever musical instrument he might have at hand, offering up wisecracking commentary on all that’s going on. Beneath his foolery and irreverence, however, there is a wise man, and one of empathy. There’s a great fondness between he and Olivia, who is unhappy at his absence when things start out, and yet completely lets her guard down with him and lets herself grieve in a way she won’t with anyone else. He sees Viola for who she is, even under the guise of a page, and banters with her from time to time in a way that clearly shows how smart he is. And yet even he is confused at one point. It’s a great performance from one of the best actors around, and Kingsley’s Feste is such an enjoyable character.

Toby Stephens comes from good English acting stock; his father was Sir Robert Stephens, a highly regarded Shakespearean actor, and his mother is the incomparable Maggie Smith. Stephens has done much of his work on stage, but has also appeared in movies like Die Another Day and Possession. His Orsino is a love-sick nobleman, very much in charge of his land. Stephens gives him the gravity the role requires- we can certainly believe him as a man respected by those who serve him. He gives the role the quality of a natural leader. At the same time, he plays the man as possessed by a love he cannot have, a brooding sort you might expect to meet in a Jane Austen novel (one wonders what he could do as Mr. Darcy), and totally oblivious to the affections of the young woman who’s passing herself off as a man in his employ. Viola as Cesario might allude to things in conversation, but she can’t say it, and part of the charm of the film is in how Orsino and Viola deal with each other. The dynamic between them plays off the way men and women look at the same aspects of life, particularly love.

Helena Bonham Carter is one of my favourite actresses, and rarely does she falter in a role (when it does happen, it’s generally the fault of someone else, such as in The Lone Ranger). She has to run the gauntlet of emotions as Olivia, starting out in a state of deep grief, withdrawing from the world, devastated by death in her family. Out of that though, and because of the influence of an impertinent page sent by Orsino, she comes back to life, and Carter plays that aspect in just the right way. She’s charmed by Cesario, finds herself drawn to ‘his’ irreverence, and is pretty much seduced in their first meeting without even realizing it. It draws her out of her grief, cheering her up, and she finds herself hopelessly attracted to Cesario, having no idea that Cesario is a fiction and the object of her affections is a woman. She sparkles in the role.

Imogen Stubbs also comes from a largely theatrical background in Britain, though she’s done some international work on film as well. She was the romantic rival of Emma Thompson in Sense & Sensibility, for instance. She was married to Nunn at the time this film was made, and it’s a great part for her to play. Viola is a comedic role, both poignant and funny, and as an audience, we root for her. She gains our sympathy early on in her mistaken belief that her brother is dead, and shifts into a more comic side of things as she learns how to walk, talk, and act like a man. She’s caught up in romantic misunderstanding, and yet the way she reacts amuses us, and shows us a woman who improvises and adapts as the situation requires it. Stubbs makes us empathize with Viola, charms us with her personality, and delights us with her response to the state of affairs she finds herself caught up in. And she has great chemistry with both Carter and Stephens in a rather unlikely love triangle that only gets more complicated as things go along.

Shakespeare gained immortality through his work, still performed today, and in fact best seen in performance, where the words come to life. It’s impossible for anyone to agree on what they might think of as his best work, but among his comedies, Twelfth Night is my personal favourite. I’ve seen it staged several times, as well as a couple of television versions. This cinematic adaptation is a favourite for me; it modernizes the setting, but holds onto the meaning of the play and respects Shakespeare's dialogue. It has a wonderful cast with extensive stage experience in Shakespeare, all well suited for their roles. And it maintains the great sense of humour and the romantic misadventures of Shakespeare’s play, all while giving the story the poignancy and tenderness it deserves.


  1. Kudos for another fantastic review. I'm going to need to make a list of the movies you review that I've not seen. This sounds like great, confused fun!

  2. Nice review. I will have to watch this. Never seen it!

  3. Great review! I want to see this one!

  4. Great review William! A movie that interests me greatly.

  5. Oh I have to see this. I didn't know Nigel Hawthorne had died...
    I'm a great fan of Branagh and now that I've read your fab review I might just watch Henry V for the umpteenth time!

  6. Another one I've never seen--but a great review, as always!

  7. @Lowell: it is fun!

    @Shelly: have fun seeing it!

    @Cheryl: a pleasure to point it out.

    @Denise: thanks!

    @Ciel: Branagh's Henry V is the definitive version.

    @Norma: thanks!

  8. I have not seen this, but anything Shakespeare I will look into only because I took the course in college and didn't understand back then all of the symbolic meaning and imagery you're supposed to pick up on with literary prose.

    I hated it then, but I love it now.The gender bending back then had a whole other motivation that today's world. I love the contrast of it all.

    God bless history and progress! LOL

  9. Nobody does Shakespeare like the English.. what a fine cast here William. I love Kenneth Branagh in everything he does.. at the moment I'm watching him in Wallander, he somehow manages to bring a touch of Shakespearean drama to this role also :)

  10. Never was crazy about the old bard--even if I have been to Stratford-on-Avon and saw the famous writer's family home. This review however, is magnificent and it makes me want to take a second look at Twelfth Night. Bonham Carter is always interesting and Kingsley must be fabulous as the fool.

  11. Oh Branagh in Wallander... love... Sorry, I'm off topic... :)

  12. I was going to say I haven't seen this one but I loved Kenneth Branagh one very much.
    Till it dawned on me that it was "Much Ado About Nothing"
    Yes please.

    Great review.

    cheers, parsnip

  13. I have watched this film a hundred times, and never tire of it. Toby and Maria have always been one of my favorite couples, and this movie does justice to them perfectly.

  14. I have always loved Toby and Maria. They are one of me very favorite fictional couples, and i especially loved them in this film.


Comments and opinions always welcome. If you're a spammer, your messages aren't going to last long here, even if they do make it past the spam filters. Keep it up with the spam, and I'll send Dick Cheney after you.