My Favorite Movies #5: Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night” is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays and is even said to have been performed the most frequently during his lifetime. I can’t seem to find a citation for that, but I buy it. The complexity, consistency, and coherency of this play trump even some of his later comedies and certainly his earlier ones. And as far as films based on Shakespeare’s work, this one trumps them all. For those unfamiliar with the story:

When her ship wrecks on the shore of an enemy kingdom, a Young Woman dresses as a man to enter the service of the ruling Duke, but while wooing a Lady on the Duke’s behalf, the Lady falls in love with the young woman, thinking she’s a he, and hilarious chaos ensues.

I was first introduced to this masterpiece on VHS in 8th Grade English class as we read the play. Before this I had seen a very solid high school production done in a traditional design concept (Elizabethan costuming, etc), and when my teacher showed us this production, I was blown away. And now, as an adult and a filmmaker, I do not hesitate to say this:

If Shakespeare made a film of this play himself, this is the film he would have made.

Trevor Nunn (now SIR Trevor Nunn), who wrote and directed this adaptation, is one of the legends of the Royal Shakespeare Company and has directed pretty much every play under the sun (including an awesome version of “Oklahoma!” starring a yet-to-be-famous Hugh Jackman right before the production of the first “X-Men” movie). Nunn’s script is masterful, adding only a Shakespearean-style monologue as prologue to the very beginning to set up conflicts and relationships that in the stage production are either confusing or buried in expositional dialogue rightly cut from the adaptation. Other than that, Nunn uses strictly Shakespeare’s words but chops them up into a cinematically engaging arrangement so that the FILM IS INDEED A FILM.

Whereas Branagh’s adaptations, mainly “Much Ado About Nothing”, suffer from long drawn out scenes that, while faithful to Shakespeare’s original text and construction, end up feeling bloated, long, and pace killing, Nunn chops up Shakespeare’s text, rearranges scenes, creates entirely new scenes around excerpts from long, drawn out, maudlin speeches by the love-sick Duke Orsino, and finds what Bazin calls the “cinematic equivalent” of Shakespeare’s play.

It is that “cinematic equivalence” that elevates this film above other great adaptations. Yes, Kurosawa’s “Ran” is a brilliant film and culturally fascinating adaptation of “King Lear”, and yes, Branagh’s full-text “Hamlet” is fantastic and epic. But neither of those films feel quite as truly, at the same time, both SHAKESPEARE and FILM as this little unknown gem.

What the…

Nunn comes from a stage tradition, but unlike Branagh, he does not seem to be locked into a stage mindset. Nunn’s editing and cinematography are truly filmic, unlike Branagh’s work, which often feels like an elaborate play rather than a film. The setting of “Twelfth Night” is beautiful and, in keeping with the fictional country in which it exists, takes place in a pseudo-Victorian age. I say pseudo-Victorian, because while the costumes are clearly from the mid-to-late 1800s, the technology and setting seem to be from an era earlier than that. This creates a truly other-worldly feel that is at once familiar and interesting and never distracting like some updates of Shakespeare’s work.

The performances, as well, I have to say are iconic and quintessential. There will never be a Viola to rival Imogen Stubbs, and I dare you to find a Feste that even enters Sir Ben Kingsley’s air space. When I saw Feste on stage, he was (and generally is, it seems) performed as the prototypical jester; loud, raucous, and constantly poking the bear. When I saw Kingsley, I forever became spoiled and will never be able to look at Shakespeare’s clown characters the same way again. There is a depth and pathos to Kingsley’s Feste that I’m not sure even Shakespeare intended but that elevates not only the character but the film itself above goofy slapstick and into truly heart-moving comedy. (Helena Bonham Carter and Mel Smith are also genius.)

Some think that by muting the sometimes over-the-top comedy in Shakespeare’s original, Nunn has made the film more of a straight drama, and that the film suffers because of this. To those people I have to ask, “Have you even seen the movie?” This film is absolutely hilarious, and the emphasizing of some of the more poignant scenes does NOT decrease the comedy. On the contrary, by enriching the pathos, the comedy shines even brighter.

One of the craziest, silliest duels ever

It is rather tragic to me that more people do not know of this little masterpiece. It did not receive a very wide release in the states, and even now the DVD is only distributed by one of the smaller art house home entertainment distributors. But this should be on everyone’s shelf! Adding to my frustration is that this film was produced by David Parfitt who went on to produce “Shakespeare In Love”, which clearly had a wide, welcome reception in the US. Why not this movie too!?

(And while I want to avoid spoilers, to fans of “Shakespeare In Love”: You may appreciate the opening of “Twelfth Night” more than those who don’t know SIL. Hint Hint.)

All in all, it’s almost hard for me to put this at the bottom of my top five. It is truly a masterpiece of filmmaking, screen adaptation, and acting. See it. Love it. Share it. Because not enough people even know about this movie to love it as much as they should.

What do you think about Shakespeare? Do you like him or not? When did you decide that? The play was written hundreds of years ago, but it’s still hilarious. What do you think about comedy that transcends time? Do you think the comedy being produced today will still be appreciated in three hundred years?

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