by Cathleen Myers
Renaissance Pictures’ luminous Twelfth Night, directed by Trevor Nunn, is arguably the best screen version of a Shakespeare comedy yet - as lively as Kenneth Branaugh’s Much Ado About Nothing, but far more romantic (with the added boon of not featuring Keanu Reaves or any other token "name" actors!).
Nunn’s Twelfth Night is set in some unspecified year in the 19th century in the imaginary country of Illyria (In one hilarious throw-away moment, the shipwrecked Sebastian is seen thumbing through a volume of Bradshaw’s Illyria). We don’t usually approve of updated Shakespeare but here it really works, thanks partly to John Bright’s "timeless" costumes. Olivia (a gracious and graceful Helena Bonham-Carter) looks lovely both in her late Victorian mourning and in her romantic gowns, which look like a cross between Regency and Renaissance. The men - and the cross-dressing, attractively androgynous Viola (Imogen Stubbs) - look dashing in their various 19th century style uniforms. Indeed, Viola’s swaggering walk is so like her twin brother Sebastian’s (Stephen Mackintosh) that at times - from a distance - we truly don’t know brother from sister! Thanks partly to costuming but mostly to Ms. Stubb’s performance, the "gender bender" subtext of the play is very much in evidence here and Orsino’s gradual attraction to the "young man" in his service is not shied away from.
Though some Philistine critics have complained about the 125 minute length, lovers of Shakespeare will relish the leisurely story-telling pace of the film which - for once - emphasizes the close relationship between Viola and Sebastian, who is usually just a walk-on character, and Viola’s sympathy for the bereaved Olivia, who has also lost a brother. The usually dry opening exposition scene is suspensefully handled as we see the shipwrecked Viola evading Orsino’s soldiers and slowly planning her bold disguise - which works all too well. And we really get to know both Olivia and her household - both Upstairs and Downstairs.
The supporting characters fit well into this 19th century setting. Ben Kingsley plays Feste not as a jester but as the village madman, who ekes out a living as a musician, singing Shaun Davey’s lovely settings of "O, Mistress Mine" and "The Wind and the Rain" (set as a Celtic Fusion dance tune). Nicholas Farrell in the minor role of Sebastian’s rescuer Antonio gives a performance almost as moving as his recent Horatio in Hamlet (and even Branaugh’s detractors had to stop and admire the sheer nobility of that performance). Sir Toby Belch (Mel Smith), the arch-e-typal English squire, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, here played as an Upper Class Twit who’d be right at home at Bertie Wooster’s Drone’s Club (just watching him trying to think is hilarious) are actually funny for a change.
Even the film’s greatest flaw is a virtue: Malvolio is played with Nigel Hawthorne (George III in The Madness of King George) with such surpassing dignity as a butler/steward who is ONLY doing his job that the practical joke played on him by the comic supporting cast seems unusually cruel and tasteless and adds a note of melancholy bitterness to the inevitable happy ending.
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