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TWELFTH NIGHT

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Frances Barber, Christopher Ravenscroft, Caroline Langrishe, Anton Lesser, Abigail McKern, Richard Briers, James Simmons, Christopher Hollis
Directors: Kenneth Branagh, Paul Kafno
Audio: English 2.0 Stereo
Subtitles: None
Video: Color, full-screen
Studio: A & E
Features: Inside an Illyrian Winter, Shakespearean timeline
Length: 165 minutes
Release Date: August 30, 2005

"If music be the food of love, play on."

Film ****

William Shakespeare needs little introduction.  The works of this master playwright have been performed onstage and analyzed for centuries and doubtless will receive likewise adulation for many centuries to come.  Even among movie-goers, Shakespearean works lately have enjoyed a resurgence of interest.  Some credit for this praiseworthy cultural renaissance in our multiplexes must surely be given to the efforts of England's actor-director wunderkind Kenneth Branagh.

Kenneth Branagh burst into the cinematic limelight in 1989 with his boldly epic rendition of Shakespeare's Henry V.  Immediately hailed as the heir apparent to Sir Laurence Olivier, Branagh has since directed multiple other screen adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, including 1996's triumphant Hamlet.  Other inspired directors have followed suit with further modern revisionist treatments of Shakespeare - Richard III, Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice, and Othello being among the adapted works.

Among this outpouring of Elizabethan verse upon the silver screen was a 1996 version of Twelfth Night starring Helen Bonham Carter.  A pleasant if modest effort, this film was actually preceded eight years previous by Branagh's own well-received interpretation.  Branagh's 1988 stage production of Twelfth Night was re-created for Thames Television and is the version which appears on this DVD offering from A & E.

Twelfth Night, or What You Will, as with many lighter Shakespearean works, deals with mistaken identities, character in disguises, and romantic overtures.  Certainly, the whimsical alternate title suggests the story's playful and none-too-serious tone.  The central action transpires in the semi-mythical land of Illyria, transformed for this Branagh production into a picturesque winter wonderland (Branagh sought to create a Dickens-like Christmas setting, albeit with a Chekovian quality of melancholy to balance the story's more comic elements).

As Twelfth Night opens, Viola (Frances Barber) has just survived a shipwreck and has washed ashore upon a strange land.  Alas, she fears that her twin brother Sebastian is lost to the raging storm.  With the apparent ruination of her past life, Viola determines that her future should lie in this realm, this Illyria in which she now finds herself stranded.  Perchance Viola might pursue service in the court of the Duke of Illyria.  To conceal her true sex and nature, Viola further intends to masquerade under the androgynous guise of a eunuch!

Orsino, the Duke of Illyria (Christopher Ravenscroft), is revealed soon afterwards in his courtyard.  He mopes in the midst of a snow flurry, his heart yearning for the lovely but unattainable Countess Olivia (Caroline Langrishe), who currently mourns a death in her family.  Nevertheless, with his loyal attendants Curio and Valentine by his side, the Duke presses forth to win the lady's heart.  To this effect, he engages the services of a young eunuch, Cesario (none other than Viola in disguise!), to woo the hand of the lady in his stead.  Unbeknownst to Orsino, Cesario/Viola is smitten with the Duke, her amorous admiration for him compelling her to do his every bidding, even if such obeisance should entail eventually losing him to the Countess.

But lo, new twists are added to the storyline.  Olivia, charmed by Viola's lyrical words, falls for the Duke's sweet-tongued emissary of love, clearly catching the young lass unawares: "Fortune forbid my outside have not charm'd her!"  And, out of the swirling mists one evening emerges none other than Sebastian, brother to Viola, once supposedly lost but henceforth no more.  As Viola's identical (but fraternal) twin, Sebastian's presence will soon be cause for much confusion and bewilderment in the affairs of these romantically-inclined Illyrians and perhaps to Sebastian's unexpected benefit, as when he is surprisingly extended the good graces of Olivia, who mistakes him for Cesario: "If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep!"  So is the seeming wonderland of Illyria unveiled in almost surreal fashion, with the wintry environs merely enhancing the dreamy, fantastical quality to the human misunderstandings to follow.

Other characters have their roles to play in this farce.  Sir Andrew (James Simmons), a kindly if dimwitted squire, is set upon the Countess by the ulterior connivances of her drunkard of an uncle, Sir Toby Belch (James Saxon).  Malvolio (Richard Briers), loyal steward to Olivia, is regarded by Sir Toby and his fellows, including Olivia's servant-woman Maria (Abigail McKern), as a troublesome and rigid nuisance to be duly dispatched:: "Marry, sir, sometimes he is a kind of Puritan."  Malvolio will serve as the play's comic-tragic character, a pompous fellow, "sick of self-love," whose foible of unwavering propriety and virtuous pride earn such disdain from Sir Toby and friends that they ultimately plot to bear false witness upon Malvolio, accusing him of certain "midsummer madness" to strip him of his lady's favor.  Above all watches Olivia's jester, Feste (Anton Lesser), a celebrative fool and yet not such a fool at all, for in his eyes, 'tis better to be "a witty fool than a foolish wit."  Filled with aphorisms, paradoxes, and witticisms, Feste is perhaps the wisest of the denizens of Illyria as he observes the merriment and deceptions afoot: "God give them wisdom that have it; and those that are fools, let them use their talents."

Viewers intimately familiar with the text of Twelfth Night will note some minor changes in this production.  A few lines here and there have been deleted (and even at least one extremely minor speaking role, too).  Furthermore, as is often the case with modern productions of Twelfth Night, the first and second scenes have been transposed.  Sebastian's initial appearance likewise has been reshuffled to a later stage in the play, presumably for greater dramatic impact.  A couple of musical interludes have also been assimilated into the body of the play (with "The Twelve Days of Christmas" being an obvious inclusion).  During these caterwauling or drunken revelries, the Shakespearean text is sung to music, generally conforming to the actual instruction of the play.

Twelfth Night, in the end, is a play about the search for love or happiness in spite of life's tribulations or sorrows.  In parallel fashion, Olivia mourns in solitude for a recently-departed brother while Viola has the presumed death of her brother on her mind, too.  But whereas Olivia has chosen to withdraw from society in her bereavement, Viola boldly faces her plight and proceeds forth with her own life, albeit in unusual manner.  The play does ask that viewers accept a few incongruities, one being that fraternal twins of opposite sexes are identical.  But, Twelfth Night is a comic-fantasy after all, perhaps not to the extent of A Midsummer's Night Dream but a comic-fantasy nonetheless.

Written around 1601 (about the same time as Hamlet), Twelfth Night is today considered among Shakespeare's more mature comedies.  It is a play to be cherished and enjoyed, and while Branagh's production on this DVD is more theatrical than cinematic, it more than satisfies.  Certainly, this Twelfth Night will suffice until which time Branagh follows through upon his desire to re-make the play for the big screen.

Video **

Well, this is what you get with 1980's videotape-quality television broadcasts (and British at that).  The picture is mildly pixelated in some early, darker scenes and somewhat soft with intermittent traces of image bleed elsewhere.  Colors are occasionally muddy.  Image definition is clear at times, indistinct at other times.  Still, for a videotape mastered to DVD, Twelfth Night looks reasonably well.

Audio **

The sound quality is also about average for a television program.  Dialogue is always discernible, but the music occasionally sounds a tad distorted.  This program being a stage production, there are no aural fanfares to be found here.  And sadly, there are no subtitles or closed captions, either.  Such an unfortunate omission consequently requires that the viewer be either dexterously attentive or else prodigiously familiar with the text lest he be assuredly discombobulated by the complicated Shakespearean verse.

Features *

"Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."

Inside an Illyrian Winter (21 min.) is an interview with Kenneth Branagh.  The actor-director talks about his Renaissance Theatre Company, which performed the production of Twelfth Night seen on this DVD as part of its first season repertoire (the stage show originally opened in December 1987 and was a solid success).  Twelfth Night being a personal favorite of Branagh's, the actor enthusiastically discusses the characters in the play, his use of artistic license and freedom within the production, and the lilting score by Patrick Doyle (with some music contribution from Paul McCartney!).  All in all, this interview serves as a fine introduction to the play and is recommended for all viewers before watching the main feature itself.

The only other extra on this disc is a timeline of William Shakespeare's life with a chronology of his better-known plays.

Summary:

Twelfth Night is one of the Bard's more pleasant comedies, and this fine production, directed by Kenneth Branagh, does justice to the spirit of the Shakespearean text.  However, the stagy presentation of the play will probably appeal more to academians and literature students than to the general viewing public.

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