Twelfth Night




When it comes to producing Shakespeare, many are called, usually by their egos, but few are chosen. Plays that can be magical on stage, that have spoken so truly to every single part of our lives for almost four hundred years that they still have the power to astonish and delight and frighten and move us beyond measure, keep finding themselves hacked to pieces, misread by egomaniacs, and presented to us as some kind of quote new revelation unquote of Shakespeare.

And not just on stage. In films recently we've seen a bad 'Henry V,' a bad 'Richard III,' and a very uneven 'Much Ado About Nothing.' And Branagh's 'Hamlet,' while scrupulously faithful to the text, is almost monotonously level through four full hours, lacking the blaze and glory and passion and despair that Olivier brought to it. At least Baz Luhrmann's 'Romeo and Juliet' captured the excitement, and the pain, and the lust, and the fever of teenage love the way Shakespeare recorded it. Of course, Luhrmann missed the poetry, but maybe you can't have everything.

And yet Shakespeare survives, of course. Not just survives, but if he's given half a chance he triumphs. Why? Well, it's probably as simple and banal as the fact that you can't keep a good genius down. And when a genius of a director comes along, with the right approach and brilliant actors to bring it to life, you see why he's still up there at the top.

I'm talking about Trevor Nunn's film of 'Twelfth Night.' Let me be specific. This is the finest film of any Shakespeare play I have ever seen in my life. Any play, any film. That includes all of Olivier's, both of Welles's, and anybody else you can name. And don't think that because it's a comedy and not a tragedy that somehow it's not worth just as much.

Nunn has set the play in the mid-Victorian era, a hundred fifty years ago, but he doesn't need to make anything special of the time period. It works well for the story and for Viola's costumes as a man, and like everything else in this production it just seems right and proper. And Nunn has remembered that 'Twelfth Night' is not so lighthearted as the other comedies. There's a dark thread running through the play, having to do with the humiliation of Malvolio, which Nunn makes us feel with all the pain that Malvolio does.

You recall that 'Twelfth Night' is about the brother and sister, twins, who get shipwrecked off the coast of Illyria, each thinking the other one has drowned. The play follows Viola, who disguises herself as a young man and enters the service of Count Orsino, who sends her as his emissary to woo Olivia, who lives in the next castle down, but who of course falls in love with this new young man instead. At Olivia's castle are Malvolio, her chief steward, Sir Toby Belch, her uncle, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, another suitor.

And then there is Feste, the local bard who acts as a Greek chorus and is usually played by a young boy. In this production he is played magnificently against type by none other than the great Ben Kingsley, who in his acting here adds a whole new level of meaning to the production. He won't get it, but he surely deserves a supporting actor Oscar for his work.

But Trevor Nunn's -- and Shakespeare's -- focus here is of course on Viola and Olivia. Imogen Stubbs as Viola is the first actress I can recall who when she dresses as a man looks like a man -- and when we meet her brother Sebastian, as of course we do in order to ensure the happy ending, they look not just like brother and sister but like twins. Both are beautiful, both are absolutely enticing.

Olivia is played by Helena Bonham Carter, and she too is a delight. Bonham Carter and Stubbs both know how to read Shakespeare for beauty, wit, and power, and we just sit back and enjoy them. I must say that 'Twelfth Night' is my favorite among the comedies, but until now I've never seen it done well. By the way, the cinematography is by Clive Tickner, and he makes every shot just scrumptious. It's a gorgeous film, beautifully conceived, directed, and acted. and if I have a vote I would happily give Nunn an Oscar for direction.