Twelfth Night (1996)
Reviewed in January 2012 / Click Here to Comment
Written on the occasion of Imelda Staunton's 56th birthday.
Director: Trevor Nunn. Cast: Imogen Stubbs, Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Kingsley, Nigel Hawthorne, Mel Smith, Toby Stephens, Steven Mackintosh, Imelda Staunton, Richard E. Grant, Nicholas Farrell, Alan Mitchell, James Walker, Sidney Livingstone, Peter Gunn. Screenplay: Trevor Nunn (based on the play by William Shakespeare).
Twitter Capsule: Starts out swell, with familiar cast showing bright new colors. Rhythm never varies, though; energy never accretes.

Photo © 1996 BBC Films/Fine Line Features
Trevor Nunn's 1996 film of Twelfth Night offers a warm embrace for a good while, endearing itself swiftly and gamely, without seeming overzealous. Through about the first half, I found myself asking why more filmmakers eager to adapt Shakespeare don't opt for the comedies, since verbal wit and farcical ploys are often better served by the screen than are long, poetic exegeses of complex moral problems, and you don't have to push so hard for "atmosphere." The language in this cinematic Twelfth Night, as in its more or less obvious template, Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, provides its own entertainment and comes in a jolly, unbroken stream. You don't feel the odd pulls of dramatic soliloquies tugging in the wrong direction from the action-defined or "opened-out" scenes of war or sword-fighting or skulking around castles, as you often do when the histories and the tragedies are filmed.

At the very least, Twelfth Night avoids this until its own outbreak of sword-fighting. But for a long spell, the only humps this Twelfth Night had to clear with me concerned my reflex exhaustion with Shakespearean shipwrecks (again?) and with the late-Victorian dress and décor (will there be any reason for this, or are they just conducive to the stately Cornwall locations?). And admittedly, through the opening passages, some of the editing (by Peter Boyle, who cut together The Hours) feels weirdly discombobulated. Ben Kingsley, as clown and warbler Feste, lounging atop a rocky island bluff, seems to take in a great deal of the confusion on the beach amongst the newly marooned characters, who are all doubly nervous because their country is apparently at war with the one where they have landed. The extent to which anyone is or isn't truly worried about this conflict remains unclear throughout the movie, as is Feste's having witnessed or not witnessed certain gestating seeds of plot-related business, including certain truths about who lived and who died in the water or on the beach.

Because of how Twelfth Night plays out, you either want to know these things, or you at least want to know who does know, and who definitely does not know. Still, a few uncertain cuts and ambiguous reaction shots hardly doom a movie that finds a good, early pace for itself and keeps adding charming performance after charming performance. This is wonderful news, especially since the actors spread themselves across a wide range of playing styles, and also because a lot of films with this many subplots and characters start forking very quickly into sets whom we care about and those we don't. Here, for a long stretch, I cared about everyone, even more so than I expected from a proficient but still an unusual cast, lacking a major A-list star. Still, anyone who was hitting the commercial arthouses in the mid-90s will have no trouble dating this film to within a few months of its release, based entirely on its extremely era-specific troupe. Imogen Stubbs, who had meanly fiddled with all those Ferrars and Dashwoods the year before in Sense and Sensibility, makes Viola an engaging thinker and a credible boy, very likable in an appealingly low-key way. Steven Mackintosh, who had a tiny hit the same year as the MTF boyhood friend and tentative female lover of Rupert Graves in Different for Girls, is a convincing twin for Stubbs. And Nigel Hawthorne, five years post-Tony Award and two post-Madness of King George, is an almost inevitable mid-90s Malvolio. Richard E. Grant and Imelda Staunton feel similarly pre-ordained, the latter much more happily than the former. Staunton quickly sketches a Maria who's more than willing to have fun at Malvolio's expense but is also more ruminative than your average rapscallion. She's a taciturn self-critic, not just a merciless bawd. You sense in her not just a metaphysical compulsion to humiliate the weak but the accumulation of experience as a woman working under an ungenerous male supervisor for many, many years.

Every member of the cast, clearly flowering in their collaboration with a top-flight theater director, makes the language ring like a bell, but a simple, silver one, not the showmanly, filigreed monument you hear Branagh take such rousing swings at in his virtuoso deliveries. The verse is handled convincingly as speech not just in the sense that we have no trouble understanding it, but in the sense that the characters don't seem to think too much about what they're saying, no matter how arduously they're focused on whatever they're speaking about. Virtually everyone in the cast is good at this, but it's especially refreshing to witness in performers we know well but haven't often beheld in this type of context. Kingsley, for example, is a charming and very specific Feste, too plummy to be "restrained" but reined-in enough that you think about who he is and where he comes from, geographically and in terms of his principles. His Feste is a person, not just a set of structural contributions to a piece that needs some comedy, some music, and a figure of gracefully aging conscience to rival his peer and quasi-foe, Malvolio. (Bonus points for the unexpected gusto and loveliness of Kingsley's singing voice, particularly given the bizarre chord progressions of his Early Modern lyrics.) Similarly revelatory is Helena Bonham Carter, a beautiful partner with Stubbs in making Viola's all but unwitting courtship of the grief-wrecked Olivia into the sexiest, most humanly shaded sequences in the film. Whether for her painterly beauty or her willingness to adopt any amount of cosmetic flim-flam that Tim Burton can throw at her, Bonham Carter often gets stuck playing concepts more than people. I would cite her previous Shakespearean outing as Zeffirelli's Ophelia as a symptom of the same problem, so it's a thrill to remember how mature and direct she is when playing less stylized people. Neither she nor Nunn is interested in the kind of wildly two-tone performance that makes a maudlin pantomime of Olivia's obdurate sorrow and then a manic romp of her fall back into love. Her moods are clearly discernible, yet she possesses a steady, interesting blend of quiet and spark. Her mourning is deep but not histrionic, and she is perplexed but good-natured in response to Malvolio's later, surprising flirtations. With Margaret's Museum opening around the same time and Wings of the Dove just a year in the future, you can feel a new actress emerging from a chrysalis.

So, the performers in Twelfth Night are a consistent pleasure even across a schizophrenic range of styles and in a piece that often turns on a dime, in circumstance as in emotion. However, though I'm not sure I can peg when or where, and the ensemble deserves none of the blame, the film's consistency in this and other respects starts feeling like a liability, particularly as regards the camera and the cutting. Once the movie has found its rhythms, which are perfect for exposition but less sturdy for full-swing complications, we start to realize that neither in the sound elements nor in the edits nor in the image regime (close-up, long shot, close-up, long shot, long shot) is the film accelerating or contracting. Shakespeare's scenario inexorably thickens, unfolds, and harmonizes with itself in (duh) fascinating ways, with scenes and whole storylines serving as each other's light and dark mirrors, directly or somewhat askance. Yet the filmmaking feels somehow impervious to all this, not so much formally understated as it is stylistically stuck, unsure how to capitalize on the fetching characterizations it has so promisingly begun to build.

Scenes in the town, others with Sebastian and his hunted friend and mentor Antonio (Nicholas Farrell), a drummed-up duel between Grant's Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Stubbs' panicking Viola: none of this "sticks" on screen. Even the Viola/Olivia exchanges take on a kind of desperate and repetitive tinge. Hawthorne, meanwhile, is probably giving a very good reading of Malvolio, but especially in the long garden sequence where he discovers a deliberately planted and plagiarized letter, convincing him that his beautiful employer Olivia is pining away for him, the camera is often too flatly far away to feed off his energy. Just as often, we're barreled-in so close as to goad Hawthorne into silly, pandering tricks: forcing a grotesque smile, leaning suggestively against a denuded statue, etc. Nunn cuts repeatedly among different set-ups, to include redundant reaction shots of Malvolio's antagonists having a laugh at his expense. But why not sustain Malvolio's own shots for longer, and allow us to watch his quiet storm of conflicted responses to this very unlikely discovery? Compared to the stale comic beats and the camera's lunges for unnecessary emphasis, the recitation of the letter itself starts feeling like the least important thing Malvolio is doing. Worse, after this, we lose track of him for a too-long stretch, during his notorious period of abuse at the hands of his conspiring underlings.

This aspect of Twelfth Night's dramatic structure is so interestingly contrapuntal to everything else that is happening simultaneously that, even if the subplot feels ill-integrated, as it sometimes does here, it provides some inevitable kick. The euphorias of self-disclosure, fraternal reunion, and romantic fusion get doused upon reaching their apex with an icy bucket of sadism, embarrassment, and bitterness. Most of Twelfth Night's characters end the piece happily, but all of them, the stars and the scapegoats, end it uncomfortably. This rich atmosphere of unease, admittedly tricky to pull off, Nunn nevertheless seems eager to dispel, paring down the characters' complex reactions to unveiled duplicities as broad, one-dimensional comedy, and softening some ignominious exits from Olivia's estate with constant cutaways not just to the closing credits but to that old 19th-century stand-by, the ballroom quadrille. Again, you can't fault the cast in their handling of these moments, or Nunn's stewardship of their performances, but his other tasks of balancing and modulating the film to be more than a transcript of well-thought-out character approaches seem to find him dangling.

Happily, Nunn's visual ideas aren't as heavy as, say, having Hedda Gabler grimace her way through furious monologues while orange hellfire reflects on her face, a touchstone of undercooked but overwrought direction from Nunn's sparse cinematic past. In fact, if there's anything he handles with visual and rhythmic finesse in Twelfth Night, it's the soliloquies. He often cuts away from the speaker and onto to whomever they are mulling over or rhapsodizing about, yet with such precisely timed edits that these flashes integrate well into the rhythms of the language, and they resonate with the speaker's feelings, rather than playing as nervous visual compensation for an embarrassing torrent of words. If Nunn had worked more at cinema, he might have gotten more of a feel for it, though I suppose it's just as likely he would have chased his tail or gotten more stiff, as Branagh disappointingly has. As far as that comparison goes, however, you feel even in Branagh's lamer movies as well as his wonderful ones that he must have loved going to the cinema, probably during the same period he was learning to love everything he so evidently adores about theater. There's a conviction to his images, even when the convictions are misplaced, suggesting that he thinks, eagerly if unevenly, in terms of shots, movements, and visual textures. Nunn, by contrast, seems like a creature of the theater through and through, and this Twelfth Night, disarming and fun at first, stodgy and a little mismanaged as it escalates (or doesn't escalate), might have worked even better as a staged remount, with few changes required for the blocking or the playing. I started watching the film by thinking, "They should film more of the comedies," and probably They still should, but I ended by thinking, "They really ought to hire movie directors to make movies." Grade: C+

P.S. Fine Line's U.S. trailer for Twelfth Night, desperate to shear itself of alienating high-culturedness and to sell itself as both the heir and apotheosis of Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, and, yes, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, sort of has to be seen to be believed.

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